'Skeptics can be converted': Stacey Abrams says convincing Americans of voter suppression is crucial

Jon Ward
Senior Political Correspondent
Stacey Abrams (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP(2), Getty Images)

Stacey Abrams has made it her mission to elevate the issue of voter suppression in the national political conversation, but she told Yahoo News there’s also a big challenge in convincing those who doubt that it’s a problem in the first place.

“It's incredibly incumbent upon me and anyone else who wants to solve the problem to win over skeptics,” Abrams said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast. “The existence of skeptics is one of the reasons that voter suppression continues.”

Abrams is a 45-year-old politician who ran for governor of Georgia last year and lost, but in the process became a nationally known Democratic star. She’s at the top of the list of potential running mates for the 2020 Democratic presidential field. And she’s only seen her profile rise since last fall by contending that Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, defeated her through underhanded tactics. She’s also started two new organizations devoted to leveling the playing field.

The core of Abrams’s argument against Kemp is that during his tenure as Georgia’s secretary of state from 2010 to 2018, he engaged in systematic voter suppression by removing more than a million voters from the state’s rolls between 2012 and 2017, and by employing a policy called “exact match,” which suspended voter registrations because of minor discrepancies between different records systems.

But she has also spoken about the climate of fear that has long existed in the Deep South and was perpetuated by incidents like the arrest, prosecution and legal limbo of the so-called Quitman 10+2 from 2010 to 2016, in which Kemp played a part. Yahoo News published an extensive investigation into this incident in August, showing that Kemp kept the matter open before the state’s Board of Elections for over a year after a jury had found no wrongdoing in the matter.

“It created for the entire community a sense of ‘Do not try this, do not believe that your democratic rights are real because the power that is embedded in the state will shift your life for you, will steal from you your authority and your autonomy, but worse, will punish you for even believing that you have this capacity,’” Abrams said of the Quitman 10+2. “I'm incredibly proud of those women because they continue to fight, but their fight is made harder because power was used to crush them and to create a permanent atmosphere of fear and of retribution.”

Nonetheless, Abrams acknowledged that there are many people who have a hard time believing there is widespread voter suppression that disproportionately affects people of color and the poor.

“I do believe skeptics can be converted, but part of the reason it’s hard … [is] because the notion of voter suppression is linked in the common parlance with the 1950s, 1960s, with billy clubs and with hoses and dogs barking at voters trying to get inside, with poll taxes,” Abrams said. “Current-day voter suppression is much more insidious, in part because it looks like user error. It’s ‘You should have checked to make sure you’re still on the rolls,’ as opposed to putting the onus on a system that should not be allowed to remove you without an extraordinary exercise.”

Abrams is trying mightily to bring more attention to the issue of voter suppression, believing that she can move the ball forward slowly but surely.

“The reality is, it is difficult right now for people to grasp the scope of voter suppression because we do not talk about it. But I think the more we talk about it, the more you find converts. And I’ve seen that in the work that I’ve done over the last 11 months,” she said.

However, the impeachment inquiry into President Trump launched by congressional Democrats will be the only thing anyone talks about for the next few months, and likely for some time after that. Nonetheless, Abrams said she still expects the issue of voter suppression to be a major theme in the 2020 election, in part because there is some overlap between the topic of foreign interference in elections and voting rights.

“When outside actors take away the autonomy and choice of individuals to vote, that is part and parcel of the conversation of suppression. It’s not going to be framed that way, but it does raise the question in voters’ minds of how independent is their ability to make choices, and do they have the right to do so,” Abrams said.

In fact, the website for Fair Fight — one of the groups Abrams started after the 2018 election — explicitly links the issue of foreign interference in elections with voter suppression. “Foreign interference and sophisticated voter suppression threatens our ability to freely elect our leaders,” the site says.

Abrams told Yahoo News: “And so I do not see impeachment as a distraction. I think it helps to animate the conversation. But I also believe that the candidates — as we get closer and closer to the primaries and into the general election — I do believe the conversation of voter suppression will continue to be raised, in part because of the continued actions of political leaders across the country to further impede access to the right to vote.”

She mentioned ongoing controversies in Kentucky and Mississippi, where the latest allegations of voter suppression have popped up.

Fair Fight is funding a $5 million effort to place four staff members inside the state Democratic Party apparatus in 20 battleground states over the next year to conduct “voter protection operations.”

“It is to look at the three pillars of voter suppression. Can you register and stay on the rolls? Can you cast your ballot? And can your ballot be counted?” Abrams said. “It’s fighting back against poll closures, encouraging people who are registered to make sure they don’t get purged, or ensuring that signature mismatches aren’t used to throw out ballots.”

Abrams often links the health of American democracy to the fairness, integrity and trustworthiness of elections. Her critics respond that her decision not to concede the election to Kemp last year was itself an act of undermining democracy.

“If Stacey Abrams actually cared about the integrity of elections, she’d concede the Georgia governor’s race that she lost by 55,000 votes,” Ronna McDaniel, chair of the Republican National Committee, tweeted in August.

Abrams told Yahoo News that she did “struggle” with how to balance competing objectives, and that she did not want to register her objections to the process in a way that put the outcome of the election in limbo and created political instability.

“I could not use the term ‘concede’ because there’s a political tradition to concession that is designed to have the effect of saying everything was done properly,” she said. “That would be for me to say to the 50,000 people who reached out, and to the hundreds of thousands who didn’t know they should or could, that it was a user error, it was all their fault. And that’s not right.”

Abrams described the decision as a “struggle” because of her belief in democratic institutions. “Yes, there has to be finality in an election, and under the laws of Georgia I could not reasonably leverage the laws to change the outcome, and I didn’t think I should,” she said.

“I acknowledged the legal sufficiency of the outcome,” she said. “But I challenged the laws themselves because the laws permitted Brian Kemp to manage his own election, to strip people of their rights and to thwart democracy.”

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