There’s a question a lot of Georgians have been asking this election season: given that the secretary of state oversees elections in the state, why doesn’t Brian Kemp have to step down from that position as he seeks to become governor?
Cathy Cox is well suited to answer that question. Today Cox is the dean of Walter F. George School of Law At Mercer University in Macon. She’s also run for governor as a Democrat while serving as Georgia’s secretary of state.
What follows is a conversation between GPB’s Grant Blankenship and Cathy Cox about the question of how Kemp should do the job he has as he chases the job he wants. The conversation has been edited for clarity.
Blankenship: So when you were running for governor I'm sure this question came up. Why did you not recuse yourself from your position as you were seeking the governorship of Georgia?
Cox: Well the Georgia constitution contemplates that the secretary of state will be an elected position. So, it sort of goes with the territory.
Blankenship: Help me with this term contemplated. What does that mean?
Cox: When the Georgia legislature wrote and adopted a new constitution for Georgia and the Georgia voters approved it in 198, the structure was, and it really didn't change for constitutional offices, that the secretary of state was an elected position.
NOTE: So just like the governor doesn’t have to stop being governor while running for a second term, the duly elected secretary of state doesn’t have to step down when running for a similar office.
Cox: I mean, that's because that's the structure of Georgia's government. Voters approved a constitution that set that up whether you like it or not. That is the structure we have.
Blankenship: So, in Kansas, in just the last couple of weeks the same topic has come up. Kris Kobach was potentially in the position of being asked to recount votes in his own race to become governor in Kansas. This raises ethical issues. How has Georgia historically tackled those those issues when they've come up?
Cox: Well, here's the bottom line: The secretary of state does not count votes. Votes are all counted at the local level where voters cast those votes. So it would take an unbelievable amount of manipulation that I can't even really imagine to change vote totals or to "rig" an election at the secretary of state level because that's not where the votes are.
NOTE: An anonymous listener asked in the GPB Macon Macon Me Curious project why, if Macon- Bibb County Commissioner Gary Bechtel had to resign from his post to run for a General Assembly seat this year, Brian Kemp did not?
Blankenship: Locally a county commission member stepped down from that seat so he could run for a state House of Representatives seat. Is that something that's mandated by a Georgia law or is that just sort of a courtesy that he extended?
Cox: Now in his case, that was mandated by law. Because we have a quirky law in Georgia that says you must resign from office if you're running for an office whose term starts before your current term ends. So for example I believe that county commissioner had a four year term that he was in the middle of. So if his term would have ended in December the same time the term the office he was running for would have started the next January, there was no overlap between the office he held and the office he was seeking. You would not have to resign. But if there is overlap at any level of Georgia government you have to resign from the office you're holding.
Blankenship: And so there's no overlap between the secretary of state position and the governorship?
Cox: No because they run on the same year cycle. So all of our constitutional offices are up for election this year 2018. So the secretary of state's term will end at the same time a governor's term would start. So there's no overlap and no requirement that the secretary of state would have to resign. Now, saying all of that, I took the position when I ran for governor that there was a perception that people obviously were nervous about. So I stepped down from chairing the State Election Board because anybody who has a complaint about elections will file a complaint with the State Election Board so that no one could say I was getting any inside information about my opponent based on complaints that were filed or handling any complaints that might have been filed against me in that realm of the State Election Board.
Blankenship: So not mandated by law?
Cox: Not mandated by law.
Blankenship: Just a thing you thought was a good idea?
Cox: I thought it would be the professional and ethical thing to do.
Blankenship: And so as Brian Kemp, as he is looking toward November... the way he's situated himself in terms of the job he has and the job he wants...are you satisfied that things are just sort of kosher?
Cox: Well, I know enough about how the office operates that I know the restrictions that really are on his ability to manipulate anything. But I think he probably ought to consider the public perception and find ways perhaps that he could step back from being so directly involved in the election process without giving up the job that we all gave him by virtue of electing him as secretary of state.