By BILL BARROW, Associated Press
ATLANTA (AP) — Republican Brian Kemp wants to move forward with transition after his aides say he captured enough votes to become Georgia governor, even though his election rival is conceding nothing. Democrat Stacey Abrams points to ballots that have yet to be counted and says there's still the possibility of a December runoff in one of the nation's marquee midterm races.
A federal judge on Thursday will convene a hearing for a lawsuit in which five Georgia voters ask that Kemp be barred from exercising his duties as the state's chief elections officer in any future management of his own election tally.
Kemp's top campaign advisers declared victory Wednesday based on numbers released by Kemp's state office; that drew a rebuke from the Abrams campaign, which continues to charge Kemp with improperly using his current post as secretary of state.
The Associated Press has not called the election.
"We are declaring victory," Kemp aide Ryan Mahoney told reporters on a conference call late Wednesday, after a day of the campaigns, media and partisan observers scrambling for information about outstanding votes across Georgia's 159 counties. Another campaign official, Austin Chambers, added: "The message here is pretty simple: This election is over, and the results are clear."
Abrams' campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo retorted a few hours later that the Kemp campaign offered "no proof" other than nonspecific provisional ballots counts released by Kemp's official state office.
"He's offered ... no indication of why we should take as it word," Groh-Wargo said. "The sitting secretary of state has declared himself" the winner.
The standoff leaves open the possibility of litigation as Abrams' campaign has pushed for the continued counting of absentee, mail-in and provisional ballots and renewed its concerns that Kemp remains the chief elections officer supervising his own election, a race already marked by disputes over the voting process.
If a runoff is necessary, the second round would take place Dec. 4, extending Abrams' bid to become the first black woman elected governor in American history while Kemp looks to maintain the GOP's domination in a state where Democrats haven't won a governor's race since 1998.
Partisan observers nationally have watched intently for clues about just how much of a battleground Georgia can be in the 2020 presidential campaign.
With reported votes exceeding 3.9 million — almost 95 percent of Georgia's 2016 presidential turnout — Kemp has just more than 50 percent.
Before the Kemp campaign declared victory Wednesday, Groh-Wargo estimated that about 15,000 votes separate Kemp from a runoff. She says at least that many outstanding absentee and mail-in ballots remained to be counted.
Kemp's spokeswoman in the secretary of state's office, Candice Broce, said that by Wednesday afternoon the number of uncounted absentee and mail-in ballots was less than 2,000 — with her boss still above the 50 percent threshold.
Broce said about 22,000 provisional ballots have yet to be processed, according to a canvass of county officials across the state. Mahoney asserted that those numbers make it impossible for Abrams to pick up enough votes to deny Kemp an outright victory.
In 2016, with a slightly larger electorate, there were 16,739 provisional ballots. Of those, 7,592 were counted. State and campaign officials said they expected a much higher proportion to be counted this year.
Kemp's office has not released a county-by-county breakdown of provisional ballots, but Abrams' campaign said they believe they are concentrated in metro Atlanta counties where Abrams won a large share of the vote. Broce said Kemp's office is working on releasing more detailed information.
The lawsuit at issue Thursday in an Atlanta federal court comes from voters who sued Kemp on Election Day alleging that Kemp presiding over an election in which he is a candidate "violates a basic notion of fairness." The plaintiffs are asking the court to block Kemp from having anything more to do with managing his election.
It's not immediately clear what Kemp's practical role was in the election tally. Local officials are responsible for counting the votes, including provisional ballots. County officials have until next Tuesday to certify their results and send them to Kemp's office.
Statewide certification must come by Nov. 20.