When Stacey Abrams was the featured guest of a “virtual” conversation in the popular 92Y Talks series on Thursday June 11 (viewed on the 92Y website and on Facebook), nobody would have blamed her if she was still experiencing a range of emotions from frustration to outrage to downright anger. Just two days before, the Atlanta-based voting rights activist, potential Joe Biden Vice-Presidential running mate, and a victim of voter suppression in her 2018 race for Georgia Governor, had spent her entire day and evening watching the primary election process in her beloved state of Georgia totally implode. If that wasn’t enough, this meltdown of local democracy was happening during the Covid-19 pandemic (at that point Georgia was at 53,249 cases and 2,285 deaths) and the second week of nationwide “Black Lives Matter” protests (after the May 25 murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police).
Words such as “catastrophe,” “disaster,” and “fiasco” peppered media coverage of a Primary Day during which new-fangled voting machines malfunctioned, inexperienced poll workers were flummoxed, and a limited number of voting sites (partly due to the Covid-19) led to obscenely long lines. Not even Abrams herself was immune to the virus-like situation she called “an unmitigated disaster.” She had intended to vote with an absentee ballot, but the return envelope was sealed shut necessitating she vote in person. When Abrams told that story to her host/interviewer Kirsten Gillibrand, the Junior Senator from New York and 2020 Democratic Presidential candidate, she was by no means implying she felt inconvenienced.
“Voting is not about the act,” she said. “It’s about the consequences.”
Abrams was appearing in 92Y Talks partly to promote her new book Our Time is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America (Henry Holt & Company), which the series’ Executive Producer (going on 38 years now) Susan Engel called “Abrams’ blueprint to end voter suppression, protect America’s electoral system, empower citizens, and take back our country.” In a New York Times Book Review, author and fellow Spelman College graduate Tayari Jones described Abrams’ book as “. . . not a political memoir or a long-form résumé; rather, it is a striking manifesto, a stirring indictment and a straightforward road map to victory . . . With refreshing transparency and candor, Abrams never conceals her ambition and dedication to transforming the system from within. As our democracy faces unprecedented peril, her time is now.”
“Your book is brilliant, Stacey,” began Gillibrand, and given that she’s on the front lines in various progressive legislative battles in the Senate, Gillibrand was the ideal choice as interviewer for this conversation. “It details all the injustices regarding voting, what you call ‘A story that is one-part danger, one-part action and all true.’”
Which could also be an accurate description of Stacey Abrams’ path to national political prominence. Born in Madison, Wisconsin and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, the now 46-year-old Abrams moved with her Methodist minister parents to Atlanta, Georgia when she was a teenager. She graduated magna cum laude from Atlanta’s Spelman College in 1995, with a BA in interdisciplinary studies (political science, economics and sociology), and then received degrees from the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas, and Yale Law School. In 2001, Ebony Magazine made a very accurate call, naming Abrams one of “30 Leaders of the Future.”
In 2002, at age 29, Abrams was appointed Atlanta’s Deputy City Attorney. In 2006, the progressive Democrat ran for the Georgia House of Representatives and won a seat that she held until 2017, when she decided to run for the Democratic nomination for Governor. After winning her primary race, Abrams faced-off against Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp in the general. One of Kemp’s primary responsibilities: Overseeing Georgia state elections. In an election during which Kemp was charged with many accusations of voter suppression, Abrams garnered 1.9 million votes—more than any other Democrat in the state’s history—but still “lost” the election by 54,000 votes.
Abrams has turned her election disappointment into determination and has become one of America’s most forceful and effective voting rights activists. In 2013, she had already funded a non-profit initiative called the New Georgia Project, which has registered more than 400,000 voters of color. Since 2019, she has led the groups Fair Fight Action and Fair Fight 2020, which is working in 18 battleground states to promote fair elections across the country, and also Fair Count, which strives to guarantee an accurate 2020 national census for hard-to-count communities.
“The census has been weaponized by the Republican Party [especially in 2010] and has led to this unfair gerrymandering,” Abrams insists. “When the census doesn’t count communities of color, children, and the poor, it affects who gets money and which areas get representation and power.”
But given that the passionate national protests decrying racism and police brutality against people of color was the dominant story in the country, Gillibrand launched the 92Y discussion asking Abrams her thoughts on the current protest movement. The alleged murder of 25-year-old Black male Ahmaud Arbery in South Georgia less than four months before was still painful for Abrams and millions of Black Americans.
“Protests matter because we can’t forget why we’re angry,” said Abrams, who recalled engaging in her first demonstrations as a freshman at Spelman in 1992. During a protest on the steps of the Georgia Capitol, she joined in burning the state flag, which at that time incorporated the Confederate battle flag, added in 1956 as an anti-civil rights movement action. After the infamous 1992 Rodney King decision that exonerated the Los Angeles police who brutally beat King, triggering nationwide riots, Abrams led a peaceful protest of her own. “But in the housing development that used to exist across the street from Spelman there was violence,” she remembers. “That rage and deep sadness that a Black man’s life did not matter—that’s what we’re seeing today, that’s what we’re feeling today. We can’t stand another 30 years of inaction. We need to educate, activate, and agitate.” To which Gillibrand responded with a smile, “I know `agitation’ is your favorite part.”
Abrams firmly believes that if Americans want to achieve social justice goals, voting remains the crucial tool. “As my grandmother taught me,” she says, “just because voting was made legal it doesn’t mean it’s available.” In a passionate and persuasive opinion column for the New York Times published the week prior to her 92Y appearance, Abrams admitted to recognizing that “Voting feels inadequate in our darkest moments. ‘Go vote’ sounds like a slogan, not a solution . . . What I am focused on is the work of showing people, in concrete ways, what voting gets us. And being honest about how much work voting requires . . .”
So, she’s quite realistic about the voting rights movement’s immediate goals. She knows that voter suppression won’t be eliminated by the 2020 election, but she is committed to mitigating its harm by educating the electorate, especially minority voters, and working with like-minded groups to bring lawsuits against the pernicious anti-voting tactics in many battleground states (i.e. Georgia, Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Texas, and Florida, to name a few) that are controlled by Republican legislatures. In her book, she details the various voter suppression tactics among these states.
“For example, in Georgia they had this system called ‘Exact Match’”, Abrams told Gillibrand. “Fifty-three thousand voters, of which 80 percent were people of color, had their voter registration held hostage if there was a typo that was made by some bureaucrat entering the info. Tennessee passed a law saying third-party groups couldn’t register voters and that’s how many Black people register. In Ohio between 2016-2018, more than 17 million people were purged from the rolls. In a number of states, restrictive voter ID laws make voting difficult for college students, minorities, and the elderly, which constitutes a significant portion of the Democratic electorate.” And Americans who pay attention to these things saw what happened in the Wisconsin Primary this past April, where the Republican legislature and a right-leaning court had no problem with forcing people to vote in person during a pandemic.
Of course, the best way to combat voter suppression and ensure the largest possible 2020 turnout when a spike of Covid-19 looms would be allowing every American to vote by mail, which the President of the United States, the Republican Majority Leader of the Senate, and most Republican Governors and State Legislatures are adamantly against. As Abrams points out, only 34 states have vote by mail where people can get absentee ballots. Sixteen states require an excuse before one can absentee vote. And 10 states require a witness or notary public to sign the ballot. Both Abrams and Gillibrand expressed their fervent hope that Congress will eventually pass the $3 trillion “Heroes Act” proposed by the Democratic House, which would appropriate $25 billion to support the U.S. Postal Service and to the states to ensure that during this pandemic every voter can access a no-excuse absentee vote-by-mail ballot in the upcoming November election.
“Voting is an act of faith; it is profound,” Abrams wrote in her Times op-ed, and which she reiterated at 92Y. “In a democracy, voting is the ultimate power . . . I am not calling for violent revolt here. Protest to demand attention to the wrenching pain of systemic injustice. Vote because we deserve leaders who see us, who hear us, and who are willing to act on our demands. Voting will not save us from harm, but silence will surely damn us all.”
Top photo of Stacey Abrams: Credit – Debbie Elliott/NPR
Stacey Abrams in Conversation with Senator Kirsten Gillibrand: Our Time is Now
92nd Street Y
Virtual on 92Y Website and Facebook
Thursday, June 11, 2020