John Barrow is perhaps the foremost authority on the current hyper-partisan state of American politics. The former Athens-Clarke County commissioner, who hails from a prominent political family, was elected to Congress in a swing district in 2004. As a member of the dwindling Blue Dog coalition of moderate Democrats, his voting record often angered local liberals but allowed him to survive in increasingly conservative territory. Republicans in the state legislature removed his hometown of Athens, then the Democratic stronghold of Savannah from his district, leaving him with Augusta and a wide swath of deep-red rural East Georgia. For a time, he was the only white Democratic congressman in the Deep South, until Republican Rick Allen finally beat him in 2014.
Now, Barrow is running for Georgia secretary of state, the catch-all office that oversees elections, business licenses and dozens of professions, from nurses to hair stylists. He’ll face either former Alpharetta Mayor David Belle Isle or former Johns Creek representative Brad Raffensperger in November, depending on the results of the July 24 GOP runoff.
The fast-talking, Harvard Law-educated Barrow is as folksy as ever, declaring before a recent Flagpole interview that he’s “busy as a cat at a fish fry.” His thoughts—condensed for length—on gerrymandering, political strategy, reforming Georgia’s elections and more are below.
Flagpole: What made you want to jump back into politics, and why secretary of state in particular?
John Barrow: First off, the qualities I think I excelled at in that highly polarized legislature I served in are exactly the qualities we need in a secretary of state—a certain amount of bipartisanship. Every now and then, the secretary of state has to participate in resolving disputes involving issues related to elections, and that requires, at minimum, somebody who’s willing to listen to and work with people on both sides of the aisle. I was the most bipartisan member of Congress running for re-election in 2014, and I don’t think anybody else on the ballot can say that.
Also, the job requires a huge amount of commitment to constituent service. The job essentially is a constituent service agency for the business community. And constituent service is another area where I excelled. My frustration with the political process made me more determined to do what I could for the folks I represented, and I think I had the reputation of having the best constituent services operation of any member of Congress from Georgia. The office regulates 700,000 professions who have problems, from time to time, with the agency they got to deal with. I had 700,000 constituents in my district who had a lot more problems with the federal bureaucracy than the 700,000 professionals do with the state, so I’ve got a real reputation for working my you-know-what off for the people who are paying for the service they deserve.
FP: What did you learn from your 2014 race? Is there really still a thirst for bipartisanship in the electorate?
JB: The desire has never been greater, but the ability to satisfy that desire has never been less. That is because of the effects of partisan gerrymandering. It is in some part because of the behavior of voters, by sorting themselves out into like-minded voting enclaves and becoming more polarized in their voting. They are responding to what they see, but if you talk with them—I had 400, give or take, town hall meetings. If you talk to them as much I did, you realize that folks aren’t happy with the choices they feel like they have to make, but they feel like they have to make them. That’s what’s driving partisanship today: It’s not so much love of your own party as fear and hatred of the other party. Voters don’t like that. They sense that’s not the way things used to be, and they know that’s not the way things ought to be.
The only way they have to respond to a party that’s gone too far to one extreme is to vote for a representative of the other party. But because of the parties’ nominating process, the only alternative to somebody who’s taken the country into the right ditch is to vote for somebody who’s gonna turn around and take the country into the left ditch. Who can you get to get the country to go down the middle and stay out of a gulley?
FP: That almost sounds anachronistic. It seems like the Democratic Party is moving to the left, and they’re doing what the Republican Party has done, which is turn their base out. What you’re talking about, can that still work in this environment?
JB: In these district maps that are drawn to order, that preordain an outcome, the candidates of both parties tend to be either products of hyper-partisanship or prisoners of it. They’re either products of it—they’re caught up in it, and they don’t know any better—or they’re prisoners of it, like [former House Speaker] John Boehner was. He wanted to do some things with President Obama that he couldn’t do, and he got fired for daring to try. Most politicians who get into our representative branch of government have to run through these hot gates, these partisan primaries, which means, when you emerge on the other side of that process, you either drunk the Kool-Aid or you have to pretend you did, or they’ll replace you with somebody else who has drunk the Kool-Aid.
One of the reasons I think there’s an opportunity to break this cycle in the race I’m running in is, it’s a statewide district. It’s the one district they can’t gerrymander. We go to war with the army we got, not the army they wanna give us.
FP: How does this strategy fit in with Stacey Abrams at the top of the ticket? She’s going to be trying to turn out African Americans and first-time voters, whereas you’re trying to reach out to the middle. Do they complement each other?
JB: Either complement or supplement. It can only help and cannot hurt the rest of the ticket. I don’t think we have to have an either/or approach.
FP: The current secretary of state, Brian Kemp, has been criticized for refusing to accept some voter-registration applications and removing people from the voter rolls. How would you treat voter registration? Would you look as closely at the forms as he’s been doing?
JB: Some of the things they’re doing I think are plainly illegal. The match program was challenged in court, and they agreed to stop doing it. [Editor’s note: Kemp had required that information on voter registration applications exactly match information in other databases, which disenfranchised more than 40,000 Georgians, such as married women whose maiden names were listed on some documents, or those with very minor discrepancies like a missing hyphen or accent mark.] Then the legislature came along and made that policy a statute. There are other things they’re doing to make it harder for folks to register and stay registered. The programs they’re engaging in now rely on, I think, an exaggerated interpretation of state law and plainly ignoring federal law. You’ve got to follow both.
FP: Another issue in the secretary of state’s office has been leaked voter data. What would you do to protect voters’ personal information from being leaked or hacked?
JB: I’d protect it, and I’d fire the people who didn’t. I’d insist that we took as good care of that as we took care of people’s confidential information when I was trying to get somebody their VA benefits. There’s no excuse for giving 6 million social security numbers to a vendor who didn’t ask for them.
FP: You’ve talked about bringing back paper ballots…
JB: We’ve got to decertify the DRE [direct-recording electronic] machines. There’s a process for doing that. I would initiate that process immediately upon taking office.
I certainly don’t criticize those who chose an electronic medium for our balloting process back in 2002. The locks were a lot stronger than the picklocks in those days. You can’t say that about the locks now. They haven’t even bothered to upgrade them. They’re not even being serviced or supported by the companies that manufactured them. They know there are gaps in the system that they don’t bother to plug, because not enough of their customers use this system to make it worth their while to keep up. And yet, that’s the stuff we’re using for our elections! The most important business we engage in as a representative democracy!
FP: So you want new electronic voting machines, but you want paper receipts, right?
JB: Receipts convey the wrong impression—folks carrying away the evidence of their votes. We can’t reconvene these folks back together in case of a recount. The trick is not to let the voter know how he voted. The voter knows how he voted. The trick is to provide an accurate record that’s absolutely reliable and can be counted and recounted if necessary—and, at the same time, be kept secret.
What we need is hand-marked paper ballots, optical scanners to provide a quick but unofficial tally of the vote at the end of Election Day, plus audits of these optical scanners to make sure we’re not relying on an unofficial count that’s misleading in any way. This is the technology that’s already authorized for absentee ballots and provisional ballots.
FP: We’re not talking about Florida in 2000 with hanging chads…
JB: No. Nobody’s doing that anymore. That’s the reason Georgia went down this road in 2002. We were the first state out of the box. That has served its day, and it’s time for them to be retired.
If you talk to people who are most technologically savvy, they say nothing is better than paper and pen. This is a back-to-the-future moment. We can use technology to enhance the voting experience, but we should never trust our ballots anymore to a medium that cannot be read and understood by a human being.