For the first time since 2006, Georgia voters will elect their next secretary of state and Athens Democrat John Barrow wants the job.
He is running against Republican Brad Raffensperger for the office that oversees state elections, issuance of business licenses and certification of many professional licenses.
But Barrow said partisan politics should not play a role in the operations of this office.
“I think this office requires a certain amount of political balance, bipartisan diplomacy and tact, because you’re going to have to deal with folks on both sides of the political divide in this state and in this country,” he said.
The self-described conservative Democrat said he plans to use his centrist alignment to bridge the political gap in Georgia.
He worked with the George W. Bush and Obama administrations in support of veteran's causes — bringing the first Veteran’s Healthcare Clinic to Statesboro, and leading a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers seeking to increase veterans’ mileage reimbursements. Barrow said he plans to continue his support of veterans through the secretary of state’s office.
Georgia businesses probably use the office more than any one group, he said.
More than 700,000 businesspeople depend on the secretary of state’s office for business licensing and Barrow said he plans to provide improved services across the board.
The secretary of state's office is important to most people at election time, he said.
"It is the chief election office in the state," he said. "It is primarily responsible for the administration of our elections. There are 159 county voting boards that conduct the actual elections but they depend on the secretary of state for the maintenance of the voter registration files and equipment.
And equipment is a big problem, he said.
"It is clear to all that our voting machines no longer meet the statutory criteria of liability…there is no evidence that they have been tampered with so as to interfere with the outcome of any elections, but there is no way to tell so we cannot say for certain that they have not."
The wave of the future is paper ballots, he said.
"The rest of the country has gone to school on us," he said. "We have stayed put and not done a thing and now they cannot be upgraded because the software is no longer supported by the manufacturer. We have serious issues because our leaders have failed to keep up with it and failed to be candid with voters about the problems. The machines have to be replaced with ones that will provide a paper ballot at the end of the day."
Another obstacle Barrow would face is partisan gerrymandering — the practice of manipulating Congressional district boundaries in order to establish a political advantage for a particular party — something he knows more about than any politician today.
Barrow was elected to Congress in 2004.
"I felt like we needed more balance in Congress and I was in a position to offer that," he said. "And sure enough, I won — one of only two Democrats to win in the entire country."
The euphoria of winning didn't last long.
Not long after the election, Republicans in the state legislature redrew the district boundaries so that his hometown of Athens was moved out of the district. He packed up and moved to Savannah only to have it removed from the district, too.
"So I moved to Augusta and still won re-election, which really drove them (Republicans) crazy," he said.
He said gerrymandering is the best way to undermine the public's right to vote because it allows the majority party to design voting districts in such a way as to “waste” more of the other party’s votes than its own.
"With gerrymandering every vote gets counted," Barrow said. "But some votes count a whole lot more than others, systematically and consistently."
Although Barrow said he thinks the current secretary of state hasn't been very effective, he did commend Brian Kemp for creating regional offices like the one in Cartersville, but he feels more are needed.
"In those offices, there is a human being to talk to," he said. "They're not in Atlanta or Macon. We need more of them."
Barrow said he has no long-range plans past this job.
"The last six secretaries have used the office as a stepping stone to a higher office," he said. "That's not my plan. This is a job worth doing right."