Brian Kemp, the Republican candidate for governor, had a problem. As did Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state. It was Nov. 3, a Saturday, 72 hours to Election Day. Virtually tied in the polls with Democrat Stacey Abrams, Kemp was in danger of becoming the first Georgia Republican to lose a statewide election since 2006. And, now, a new threat. The secretary of state’s office had left its voter-registration system exposed online, opening Kemp to criticism that he couldn’t secure an election that featured him in the dual roles of candidate and overseer.But by the next day, Kemp and his aides had devised one solution for both problems, an investigation by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution shows.They publicly accused the Democratic Party of Georgia of trying to hack into the voter database in a failed attempt to steal the election. The announcement added last-minute drama to an already contentious campaign. More important, it also pre-empted scrutiny of the secretary of state’s own missteps while initiating a highly unusual criminal investigation into his political rivals.But no evidence supported the allegations against the Democrats at the time, and none has emerged in the six weeks since, the Journal-Constitution found. It appears unlikely that any crime occurred. “There was no way a reasonable person would conclude this was an attempted attack,” said Matthew Bernhard, a computer scientist at the University of Michigan who has consulted with plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s use of outdated touch-screen voting machines.
To reconstruct the campaign’s final weekend, the Journal-Constitution interviewed more than 15 people — computer security experts, political operatives, lawyers and others — and reviewed court filings and other public records. That examination suggests Kemp and his aides used his elected office to protect his political campaign from a potentially devastating embarrassment.
Their unsubstantiated claims came at a pivotal moment, as voters were making their final decisions in an election that had attracted intense national attention.