A conversation with Stacey Abrams on voter suppression, “electability,” and those VP rumors

Stacey Abrams on voting rights, the Census, and focusing on the work—not the job title

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Most politicians, after losing a monumental election, see their personal brand fade into obscurity. Not Stacey Abrams.

Since Republican Brian Kemp narrowly defeated Georgia’s former House minority leader in the 2018 gubernatorial election, Abrams has become a national progressive hero. Seemingly overnight, the 46-year-old Kirkwood resident has built a roughly 60-person organization, backed by a 500-strong network of “Democracy Warrior” super-volunteers and student activists at 14 college campuses aimed at eliminating voter suppression—which she points to as one of the reasons she lost the most competitive governor’s race in Georgia’s recent history.

In March, Abrams created Fair Count, an organization dedicated to tallying the Peach State’s “hard-to-count” population—communities with a large number of people living on low incomes or people of color—in the Census. In August, she launched Fair Fight Georgia, a voting-rights advocacy group, which later evolved into the national Fair Fight Action. And in December, she founded the Southern Economic Advancement Project, a think tank focused on finding progressive solutions to address issues where the South ranks poorly, like healthcare, income inequality, and environmentalism.

When she’s not flying across the country to rally at events, appearing on MSNBC, or meeting with network producers about turning one of the romance novels she wrote in the 2000s into a TV show, she’s been named as a potential running mate for whoever wins the Democratic presidential nomination. As of press time, Abrams’s political future was up in the air: Another bid for the governor’s seat could be on the horizon, she says, if she’s not tapped as a VP hopeful. On top of all that, Fair Fight Action filed a federal lawsuit outlining problems with the 2018 election and alleging that Kemp, while serving as secretary of state, “grossly mismanaged” the election. (Fair Fight Action has even tagged his title with an asterisk in press releases, a subtle yet pointed jab at the governor.) A federal judge rejected the state’s request to dismiss the suit, which is ongoing.

In December, Abrams discussed with Atlanta magazine the future of voting in Georgia, Census reform, and what TV shows she binges at home.

This interview has been edited for clarity and space.

Stacey Abrams
Stacey Abrams

Photograph by Fernando Decillis

How has your life changed?
I am a fairly private person. I’m more recognizable than I used to be, and that means I’m privileged to be in a space where people know who I am and what I do and want to talk about it. As an introvert, that means more talking than I’m used to. But I’ve also had opportunities to pursue passions that I’ve had for a long time in a much more intentional way. I’ve always loved writing and television, and now, I get to write for television or produce for television. I think I’ve seen a greater intersection of all of my lives in a much more public way than ever before. I don’t go to the grocery store very much anymore. Really. Again, it’s not a complaint, but it’s a little hard to navigate.

Do you sometimes look back and say, “Wow. Ten years ago, this was not what I was expecting”?
Ten days ago, it wasn’t what I expected. I care about policy, and politics has been one of the most effective ways I’ve found to influence policy. I’ve been in the nonprofit sector and the for-profit sector, so I’ve tried to always be a part of solving problems. I had not anticipated the scale at which I could have a say and have a voice—particularly in the wake of not being successful at something I tried. And so, my nature is that I’m not going to stop simply because I don’t get the thing I want, because that’s been sort of the story of my life. But it has been, for me, a more intense version of that.

Sarah Beth Gehl, SEAP’s policy director, was recently quoted as saying part of the group’s mission is “to change the narrative of the South.” What is the South, in your eyes?
We believe the South, first and foremost, is a geographic region with [states with] similar traits. That certainly differs, depending on which part of the South you’re in. But there are very strong cultural and political correlations amongst most of the Southern states, and there’s also a concomitant challenge you tend to see with having, unfortunately, some of the highest metrics in some of those more challenging areas. We are not the leaders in education. We have challenges in healthcare. We are economically, typically, the most depressed region in the nation. But we also recognize that the South has been innovative and has moved on issues. Pre–community college courses started in Tennessee. Georgia did kindergarten, pre-K. We want to amplify what the South does well, but we also want to take the kernels of good ideas that may happen nationally and—we like to say—“translate them into Southern.” How do you take the conversation about environmental stewardship built into Southern farming and turn that into a broader conversation about how we combat climate change? And, at the same time, use that to address economic and environmental-justice issues, which tend to be endemic in the deep South?

Stacey Abrams
Abrams speaks with ranking member Rep. Doug Collins, R-Ga., before the start of a House Judiciary Subcommittee hearing on the Voting Rights Act.

Photograph by Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call via AP

Voting rights and the Census aren’t exactly the sexiest of issues.
People want to have a say in their future. And part of our responsibility—and my responsibility as someone in public life—is to remind people of the connection between the right to vote and the policies they want to see for their daily lives. Typically, this conversation only happens during election season, and it tends to target a very specific voting population. The campaign I ran into 2018—plus my 11 years of work in the legislature—have all been focused on expanding that conversation and making it a year-round, daily conversation, not simply about who we elected as our leaders but what we demand of them in their work. I do think there is a tendency for some to relegate the conversation of voting rights to only being about a politician getting a job. My mission—and I think we’ve been successful this year—is to raise the relationship between the world we want to see and the right to vote, and the use of that right to vote.

What inspired your passion for voting rights?
I’ve been working on voting rights since I was in college. I ran voter-registration drives at Spelman. I led voter-registration and engagement work both in Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign and the 1993 mayoral race. I was a Salzburg Global Seminar fellow in Austria on civic engagement. And I was chosen as a youth speaker at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. This has been a long-held passion. It began with my parents, who were civil-rights activists as teenagers, helping register people to cast ballots. They instilled in me a very strong belief that the world we want to see is made real through voting. To me, the right to vote is inextricably linked to the policy issues I—we—care about. We cannot solve the issues of economic insecurity or environmental injustice or access to healthcare without exercising the right to vote. But, for me, it has always been not just the act of voting, but what voting can yield. I was a student activist in college, and that connection was always present. As [House minority] leader, I helped introduce a number of bills to strengthen voting rights, but none of them had traction in a Republican Legislature.

You have been criticized for not conceding the results of your election. Is that a possibility at this point?
That’s actually inaccurate. I have, from the 16th of November, acknowledged the legal sufficiency of the vote. That’s never been my question. What I am challenging is the infrastructure that maintains our election system. I’ve not challenged the 2018 election. What I’ve challenged is the system itself and that’s what our lawsuit looks into. The law was followed. The problem is the law, in many ways, was wrong, and we need to correct the law and correct the investment being made in our elections infrastructure in Georgia. There is something deeply illegitimate about a system that allows people to be purged, allows people to be distanced from their ability to cast a ballot simply because they don’t have a car and because the precinct closure did not take into account the economic issues facing that community. There is something absolutely wrong with a “use it or lose it” law that says, in Georgia, you lose the right to vote simply because you did not use it, and you may or may not have received a flimsy paper postcard that warns you that your right to vote was in jeopardy. The laws as they stood permitted the Secretary of State to manage his own election, permitted the Secretary of State to oversee the closure of 214 precincts, permitted the Secretary of State to strip voters of their right to vote, and allowed the Secretary of State to underresource our state elections infrastructure such that people were not fully able to exercise their right to vote.

What’s the ideal outcome for your federal lawsuit?
The ideal outcome is that Georgia be bailed back into preclearance requirement, and that we be held accountable to the highest standard of voting rights, which is what was set forth in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and unfortunately eviscerated in the 2013 Shelby Decision [1]. But more than that, I want Georgians to have a full range of opportunity. There’ve been a number of stories about the remarkable difference in how your vote is treated depending on which part of the state you live in. We should not have 159 different democracies within Georgia [2].

If you could wave a magic wand and fix Georgia’s voting system, what would that look like?
I would restore access to all of our precincts, and I would ensure that voting-precinct closures have to go through the preclearance process that was previously required by the Department of Justice. I would ensure that absentee ballots become not only available but that the standards are uniformly applied across our state, and that people can apply for permanent status as an absentee-ballot recipient [3]. I would ensure that every community has Saturday and Sunday voting. Unfortunately, the BMD (ballot-marking device) machines have proven to be problematic [4]. We know that handmarked paper ballots are the gold standard, and I would ask that we find a better combination than the one we have currently. We know that, in Oregon and Washington state and Colorado, vote by mail has become the standard, and those states have seen their participation rates jump dramatically. In Minnesota, they have a combination, and they also have very high voter-turnout rates. I think we need to do what’s best for Georgia.

Historically, Republicans in Georgia have brought 200,000 or so more voters to the polls than Democrats in statewide elections. You were able to help close that gap to a bit over 50,000. What kept you from closing that gap entirely?
I believe a great deal of the constraint was voter suppression. Each of the issues I’m talking about separately may not amalgamate to the goal number (zero), but when you take them altogether, [voter suppression] has a dramatic effect on turnout, and it has a dramatic effect on the number of votes and voices that are heard. But the other piece of voter suppression is the psychic effect: In Quitman, women who attempted to be on the school board and followed the law were arrested, had their offices raided, and sat in jail. They had 120 felonies filed against them [5]. That has a seismic effect on how people feel about whether the right to vote is real. That has a seismic effect on how people decide to vote. As long as one person cannot fully exercise their constitutional right to vote in Georgia, then, we’ve got a problem.

The issue is making sure that we have a fair fight: The side that can actually turn out its voters wins legitimately based on simply who shows up, and not based on any barriers. Let’s be clear: These barriers don’t only affect Democrats. Dan Gasaway had to have the same Republican primary run three times [6]. For me, it’s not that Democrats will win simply because we solve these problems. We win as Georgians when we solve the problems that impede any Georgian from being able to cast a ballot and have that ballot be counted.

There’s a bit of a silver lining to some of the difficulties that Georgia’s had, in that it’s galvanizing people to get involved.
I fundamentally believe that you use every opportunity to make progress, even if that progress isn’t personal. Of course, I’m disappointed that I did not win the 2018 election. But that didn’t exempt me from my obligations to push for what I think is best for Georgia. The organizations I’ve created are grounded in that idea. I took that 10-day period between Election Day and my nonconcession day, and I thought about the work I could do: Even if I didn’t have the title of governor, what did I see as critical to the progress of Georgia, and how could I do something about it? What we want people to understand is that the right to vote should be real in Georgia, and it should not be arbitrarily or artificially removed. And that’s our mission. We are going to fight. We may not win every battle, but we will join every battle. And our mission will be to make certain that every Georgian who is legally eligible has the right to vote in our state.

Stacey Abrams
Stacey Abrams participates in a Fair Fight phone bank at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Thursday, November 21, 2019.

Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP

A year after Kemp took office, are you optimistic or pessimistic about where we’re heading?
I’m deeply concerned about the choices he’s made. I appreciate the beginning of a real conversation about Medicaid expansion. But the decision not to pursue full Medicaid expansion and instead to promote a program that costs more and covers fewer people is deeply problematic, and it also fails to solve the critical issues facing rural Georgia. [Kemp’s proposal] did not cover nonemergency medical transport. One of the key issues for rural Georgians is they cannot get to a doctor unless there’s a crisis. They don’t do their prescriptive checkups; they don’t do the work they need to do because it’s not an emergency. And what starts out as diabetes or high blood pressure becomes ketoacidosis or a heart attack.

Those are solvable problems, and Georgia has the resources to solve them. The governor’s plan would allocate more money than is actually necessary for full expansion, but under his program, only 80,000 Georgians—as opposed to 490,000 under Medicaid expansion—would be covered. I’m deeply concerned about his decision to sign House Bill 481, which put Georgia in the position of, again, worsening our healthcare crisis, because we will now face the likelihood of doctors and medical students choosing not to come to Georgia because they could potentially face legal ramifications for practicing their duty of care. I have seen very little action on his part to address the effect of the tariffs on not only our farmers but also on our manufacturing and on our ports. And so, I would say that his allegiance to certain ideologies has undermined his willingness to actually serve Georgia.

Did Kemp’s appointment of Kelly Loeffler to succeed U.S. Senator Johnny Isakson surprise or impress you?
I believe he tapped someone he believes can self-finance, because they know this is going to be a competitive and expensive election. And I think it is a fairly facile response to the increasing losses they’re facing in the suburban communities, this belief that, simply because the candidate is a woman, that is somehow going to negate the policies that are driving suburban women into the Democratic party.

What advice would you give to candidates who are running in those competitive suburban districts like Lucy McBath, who might be viewed through the lens of how they voted on impeachment?
The impeachment is not a political question in the traditional partisanship sense. It is a question of the principles and values that we hold as Americans. What standards do we intend for the leader of our nation to meet? This is not a partisanship issue; this is a civics question, and my belief is that you should vote for impeachment if you believe that that is the right thing to do. Almost to a person, with some very notable and not surprising exceptions, that’s the way it’s being viewed by Democrats and Independents. Justin Amash, a Republican who is now an Independent, has also signaled that he’s concerned about what this looks like. I don’t think voters are going to decide who the next president is based on this process. They’re going to look at, is my life better? Are my wages healthier? Can I take care of my children? Can I make decisions about my body and myself? Those are going to be the questions: The same questions that led them to vote in ’18 are going to be the questions that move them through it in ’20. You vote your conscience, and you vote your life.

In a New York Times Magazine piece, you likened your experience—politically and professionally—to Beto O’Rourke, but you insinuated he automatically ascended to the ranks of presidential possibility in part because he’s a white male. So, what needs to be done to broaden the definition of presidential—or even just electable—among Georgians and Americans?
The framing is driven by media narrative. There is a tendency to see possibility based on what has actually been accomplished. I don’t fault Beto or his ambition at all. What I was speaking to is the tendency for us to only see leadership in something that looks like what we’ve had before. And given the fact that in America, white men have been the titular leaders for most of our history, in almost every one of our ranks, with very limited deviations, that tends to be what is seen as presidential. But the best way to change that is to elect women as president, to elect a person of color as president, and eventually to elect a woman of color as president.

What trends are you seeing among black people in Georgia, Latinx people, young voters?
There’s a great deal of interest in registering to vote. They understand how key the right to vote is. And we have seen increases in registration, but also, we’ve seen increases in participation. And that’s what’s so exciting to me. That it’s not just about a single election. One of the reasons I didn’t file a contest in the 2018 election is that the minute a politician files a contest, the election is about just that person’s title. My mission is to ensure that the state has the best voter system. What is so energizing to me as I travel the state is running into people I would never think to talk to about this, who come up to me and talk about how they are now engaged in voting rights and making sure their neighbors are registered, that their church is participating. They check their voter registration, and they tell their friends and family to do the same. That type of active engagement is what we need in Georgia, and what we need across the country.

There’s talk of you potentially being a VP running mate. What factors are you considering in that decision?
The only factor is whether someone decides they want to ask me. It’s been an odd year. My name was floated early in the process, when I was still considering what I would do next. And because of that conversation, I find myself in a very odd position of answering a question about whether I would be willing to serve in a job no one has asked me to serve in. And so my only response would be, “Yes.” If the presidential nominee asked me if I wanted to serve and help—not only support his or her election process but also help lead our nation—the answer, of course, would be, “Yes, I’d be honored to do so.” And I believe I am prepared to do so. But there’s no planning for that job.

I imagine by now you probably have an idea of who you would or would not be on the ticket with. Are you willing to be the running mate for anybody who’s in the Democratic contest right now?
I believe that we have a strong slate of candidates and yes, the nominee for the presidency on the Democratic slate would be someone I’d be honored to work with. And I trust the American people to make the best choice of who that person would be.

If you don’t go down the VP path, would you consider another run for governor, maybe in 2022? And is that something that’s more appealing than running for Senate?
Well, I see them as separate. I served in the legislature. I was effective as the legislative leader. It is not the job that I am interested in holding again. And so, for me, it’s not a question of, do I do one or the other? I will not run for the Senate. I will not run for Congress. I am not interested in a legislative role again. But I will certainly consider running for governor again. I will be open to opportunities that would allow me to continue to serve in public office, but also to use the executive skills that I’ve built over the last 20 years.

What should Georgians be paying attention to on the national stage, besides the presidential race?
Other than the election, the most salient issue that’s happening in 2020 is the 2020 Census. That is going to determine the course of our nation for the next decade and possibly the next generation. While it is a local conversation in each state, there’s a national narrative that is impacted. It’s how we deploy nearly a trillion dollars in resources. It’s how we as a nation decide that we intend to work together, because we know who we are and we know who’s here. I think we sometimes gloss over the Census because it looks like a stats report, but it really is a determination of who’s going to have access. Who’s going to have resources? Will our struggling communities continue to struggle, or will they get the resources they need? So, the Census is number two for me. I would say number three is the quiet movement that’s happening in the Trump administration to strip more than a million people of access to food stamps. We have to recognize that this is not partisan. Almost exclusively, these are families with children, working families who are doing their best to get by. Instead of allowing states to respond to the needs in their community, we have this intent to primarily harm women and children, by changing how they feed themselves. And that to me is both mean-spirited and it is antithetical to the kind of economic progress we should be making in the country.

Do you ever think that we can get to that place where the process is fair? Do you think that it’s a destination or a journey?
I think it’s a journey. We’ve had voter suppression since the inception of this nation, and the nature of power is that those who hold it will always try to constrain who can have access to it. But the notion of democracy is that we have the ideal that we will get to a place of fairness. And I believe in the ideal. My mission is to make the ideal as real as possible, and it’s not necessarily a question of, did we get there?; it’s, did we do our best to make it possible? That’s my mission.

On the rare night where you’re not traveling and speaking somewhere, where you’re not going on TV, and it’s a night when you can just chill, what do you do?
I read. I catch up on TV. I’m way behind. I need to watch this season of Rick and Morty. I need to watch Watchmen. I got to catch up on The Good Place. Actually, I think I caught up on that one. Caught up on Blackish. I love television. I love reading. I’m usually in the middle of two or three books, so it’s fun to be able to get back to, and possibly finish, them. I am reading The Rosewater Insurrection by Tade Thompson. It’s the second of a trilogy that he did. I am reading Evicted, about housing [7]. And I’m rereading a romance novel, Reckless by Elizabeth Lowell.

What’s Selena Montgomery been up to?
Selena Montgomery has been in retirement since 2010. So one of my contracts was the year I became Democratic leader. And while I’m very good at multitasking, I’d also cofounded a financial services company called NOWaccount at the same time. And between my job in the legislature and starting our financial-services company, Selena had to take an early retirement. She will make a cameo appearance at some point to write the third book in the trilogy that I forgot to finish. But other than that, she is likely going to just watch her work take on new forms, including our CBS pilot if it gets picked up [8].

[1] Shelby County vs. Holder was a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court case that undid key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 requiring specific states, including Georgia, to seek federal approval before changing their election rules.

[2] Georgia has 159 counties, more than any other state, save for Texas, which has 254. Elections are managed by counties.

[3] Some voters choose to cast ballots by mail before Election Day. Many take this route because they live abroad, but some prefer the ease of access. Permanent absentee-ballot recipients automatically receive a ballot before all elections.

[4] Georgia’s new elections hardware, which cost the state more than $100 million, has been criticized as vulnerable to hacking and malfunction.

[5] In late 2010, then Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office ordered the arrest of 10 black people—some who had just won elections for local office—on allegations of voter fraud. After a four-year investigation, not one was found guilty of a crime.

[6] In 2019, a Superior Court judge, claiming illegal votes had been cast, tossed out the results of two separate Republican primary elections between Dan Gasaway and Chris Erwin for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives. Erwin was declared the winner after the third election.

[7] Written by American sociologist Matthew Desmond, Evicted discusses housing through the lens of the true stories of eight families in Milwaukee.

[8] In college, Abrams created a spreadsheet to chart out her life and career goals. On the list was to publish spy novels. In 2009, under the pen name Selena Montgomery, she published her eighth romantic-suspense novel. She still uses the spreadsheet.

This article appears in our February 2020 issue.

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