The Republican runoff for Georgia secretary of state, one of the most powerful elected positions in Georgia, comes down to two pro-business candidates who both say they’ll protect the integrity of elections.
State Rep. Brad Raffensperger, who received the most votes in a four-way primary, faces runner-up David Belle Isle, a former mayor of Alpharetta.
The winner of the July 24 Republican runoff will be challenged by Democrat John Barrow, a former U.S. congressman, in the November general election.
Belle Isle: 43 years old, former Alpharetta major, University of Georgia and Georgia State University graduate, real estate attorney with Hipes & Belle Isle.
Raffensperger: 63 years old, state House representative from Johns Creek, Western University and Georgia State University graduate, CEO of Tendon Systems, a construction and restoration company.
Biggest claim to fame
Belle Isle: Oversaw significant growth in the city of Alpharetta as mayor from 2012 to 2017, including development of the downtown area and a 1,400-person conference center.
Raffensperger: Emphasizes his experience running large, complex organizations, saying his operations skills will translate to managing the Secretary of State’s Office.
Favorite talking points
Belle Isle likes to talk about the potential for fraud in Georgia’s absentee voting system. Voters who submit their ballots by mail aren’t required to show photo ID as they would if they cast ballots in person.
Though voting fraud is rare, Belle Isle says it needs to be prevented. He says the potential for fraud is like a leaky bottle of water.
“You don’t need to know how much water there is in this bottle to know that if there’s a hole in it, it needs to be plugged,” he said.
Raffensperger touts his experience managing large organizations. As a civil engineer and business owner, he says his know-how makes him qualified to run the Secretary of State’s Office.
“That’s a complex organization just like I run every day,” he said. “We can have an organization that has remarkable client service.”
Raffensperger said he would find ways to reduce the amount of paperwork required of small business owners.
What they don’t want to talk about
Belle Isle recently changed his website to remove inaccuracies about his ancestry.
Belle Isle initially claimed his great-grandfather was Atlanta taxi businessman Alvin L. Belle Isle. But a distant cousin discovered that Belle Isle’s great-grandfather was Alvin’s brother, Robert E. Belle Isle.
Belle Isle corrected his website to remove references to his great-grandfather.
Raffensperger was accused of owing about $135,000 in unpaid tax debts. Raffensperger said he didn’t owe most of the money, and he verified with government agencies that he and his companies were in good standing. He said he recently paid off more than $5,000 in old tax liens in Gwinnett and Muscogee counties.
Belle Isle’s campaign has requested an investigation by the secretary of state because Raffensperger had signed a document swearing he wasn’t in default on taxes when he qualified to run for office.
Belle Isle says his most significant campaign donors include business leaders and individuals who supported Alpharetta’s growth while he was mayor.
His contributors include developers, doctors, architects, attorneys and hotel companies. He reported nearly $460,000 in contributions in his June 30 campaign finance report.
Raffensperger’s biggest supporter is himself: He has loaned his campaign $725,000. That cash infusion boosted his election contributions to $1.1 million, according to his June 30 campaign finance report.
He counts concrete contractors, accountants and professionals in the engineering and construction industries among his stronger backers.
What they’re about to get into
Whoever wins the Republican primary runoff will immediately jump into a heated campaign against Barrow. Voters will decide on Georgia’s next secretary of state in the Nov. 6 general election.
The secretary of state will take on several pressing issues:
- New voting system: Georgia’s elected leaders are planning to replace the state’s electronic voting system with a new system that has a paper backup. Georgia’s current touchscreens don’t leave a verifiable paper trail that can be checked for accuracy and used for recounts. The incoming secretary of state will oversee implementation of the new voting system statewide.
- Professional licensing: The State Board of Nursing, which licenses and regulates the state’s nurses, might resume its effort to take control of its own investigations. The Nursing Board is currently overseen by the Georgia Secretary of State’s Office. The Georgia General Assembly would have to decide on a bill to change the structure of the Nursing Board.
- Voter confidence: One of the secretary of state’s most important roles is to manage an election system that voters can trust. The incoming secretary of state will have to ensure voters believe in the accuracy of election results and avoid recent problems, such as voters being assigned to the incorrect state House district.
Why it matters
The work of the Georgia secretary of state is one of the most important elected offices in the state because it directly interacts with millions of people. The secretary of state handles elections, business registrations and professional licensing.
The job requires a mix of management and political skills. The Secretary of State’s Office is traditionally a launching pad to the governor’s office. Each of the past four secretaries of state has run for governor: Brian Kemp, U.S. Rep. Karen Handel, Cathy Cox and Lewis Massey.