An attempted conversation between a Georgia Tech student and Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) ended abruptly with the lawmaker snatching the student’s cellphone away while he was being asked about possible voter suppression in the state. The senator’s office has said the exchange, part of which was captured on video, was a misunderstanding.
On Saturday, a student member of the Young Democratic Socialists of America at Georgia Tech approached Perdue, who was visiting the Atlanta campus to campaign for Brian Kemp.
Kemp, a Republican and Georgia’s secretary of state, is locked in a tight gubernatorial race with Democrat Stacey Abrams, a former state lawmaker. The race attracted additional scrutiny this week after the Associated Press reported that more than 53,000 voter registration applications were in limbo with Kemp’s office; the overwhelming majority of those applications are for African American and other minority voters, according to an AP analysis.
Abrams has accused Kemp of voter suppression and of using his position to try to swing the gubernatorial race in his favor. Kemp has defended his office by saying it was simply complying with an “exact match” state law that requires election officials to put a registration application on hold if there are even minor discrepancies with existing records (for instance, a typo or an extra hyphen in a name).
Polls show the race between Kemp and Abrams is a toss-up.
On Thursday, the controversy escalated when a coalition of civil rights groups sued Kemp over the exact-match law, arguing that it disproportionately and unfairly affects minority voters.
This is evidently what an unnamed Georgia Tech student had in mind Saturday when he approached Perdue and began asking about Kemp, while recording video on his cellphone.
“Hey, so, uh, how can you endorse a candidate — ”
That was as far into the question as the student got. Before he could continue, Perdue snatched the phone out of the student’s hands, as evidence shows in a video.
“No, I’m not doing that. I’m not doing that,” the senator can be heard saying in the cellphone recording.
“You stole my property,” the student tells Perdue. “You stole my property.”
“All right, you wanted a picture?” the senator replies.
“Give me my phone back, Senator,” the student says.
“You wanted a picture? I’m going to give it to you,” Perdue continues, ignoring the student’s request. “You wanted a picture?”
“Give me my phone back, Senator,” the student repeats.
At this point, the video rights itself again, apparently because the student is reunited with his phone. By then, Perdue is walking away, on a crowded pedestrian pathway.
“That’s U.S. Senator David Perdue. U.S. Senator David Perdue just snatched my phone because he won’t answer a question from one of his constituents,” the student can be heard saying as he follows Perdue for a short distance. “He’s trying to leave. He’s trying to leave because he won’t answer why he’s endorsing a candidate who’s trying to purge people from voting on the basis of their race.”
On Sunday, Perdue’s office characterized the exchange as a misunderstanding and said the senator had spent several hours meeting with hundreds of people at a Georgia Tech game over the weekend.
“The senator spoke with many students and answered questions on a variety of topics,” Perdue spokeswoman Casey Black said in a statement. “In this instance, the senator clearly thought he was being asked to take a picture, and he went to take a selfie as he often does. When he realized they didn’t actually want to take a picture, he gave the phone back.”
The legal news site Law & Crime first reported on the video Saturday. Calls to Perdue’s Atlanta and Washington offices were not immediately returned Sunday.
In a statement, the Young Democratic Socialists of American at Georgia Tech said it thinks Perdue accidentally stopped and restarted the recording for a few seconds as he hid the phone behind his back to keep it from the student.
“Perdue walked into Georgia Tech’s backyard, and students aren’t allowed to ask him a simple question?” the group stated. “It would be one thing to say ‘no comment’ or inform us he’s not taking questions. Perdue would have been within his legal rights to simply walk away or decline the question. But instead, he forcibly, suddenly, and violently took their phone without justification or provocation.”
“Had the situation today been the other way around, and if the Georgia Tech student had snatched a sitting U.S. senator’s phone, the student would likely have been arrested on the spot,” the group stated. “This behavior is shocking, appalling, and totally unbecoming of the supposedly hallowed office of U.S. senator.”
The group said the student, who wished to remain unnamed out of fear of retaliation, is considering filing a report with campus police to point out the double standard. The Washington Post spoke with the person who recorded the video and confirmed that he is a student at Georgia Tech.
Perdue is not running for reelection this year but, with only a few weeks to go until the November midterm election, has been campaigning for Kemp and other Republicans in Georgia. The senator drew attention this month when he compared those protesting then-Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh to Nazis after protesters cornered him in a Washington airport.
Abrams on Sunday continued to call for national attention to what she described as a “problematic” state law.
“We know this is a flawed system that has a disproportionate effect on people of color, but it also has the ability to erode trust in our system,” she said on NBC News’s “Meet the Press.” “I know that Secretary Kemp is well aware of this, and it’s part of a pattern of behavior where he tries to tilt the playing field in his favor or in the favor of his party.”
Abrams added she is confident that the election will be fair because the 53,000 whose registration applications were flagged will still be able to vote — although they will be at the mercy of “subjective” verification by thousands of precinct poll workers across the state.
“We are creating another set of hurdles for people who simply want to exercise their right to vote,” Abrams told NBC News’s Chuck Todd. “But . . . we have national organizations that are also paying attention [to voter protections], and I think we can make this work.”
Kemp hit back at Abrams on Sunday, calling her “unapologetically extreme” and retweeting a Daily Caller story that said he was being “Misleadingly Accused of Racist Voter Suppression . . . Again.”
This story has been updated.