Two years ago, Stacey Abrams became a household name when she ran for governor of Georgia against Brian Kemp, then secretary of state. Though her votes came in short, she refused to concede – citing widespread voter suppression in a state where the election was run by the opponent himself.
In 2020, she is still not the governor. But in some ways, Abrams never lost.
Though it is poised for a recount, Georgia surprised America and the world when – on the basis of the first count –the Democrats outpolled the Republicans last week. If the result survives the recount then Joe Biden will become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win Georgia in 28 years.
He could not have done it without Stacey Abrams.
The huge voter turnout – inspired by Abrams’s work and a groundswell of Black community organizers in her circle – means that both Georgia Senate races will go to a run-off and, if the Democrats were to win both races, they would control the Senate. Without them Joe Biden will be significantly constrained by a Republican held Senate – the leader Mitch McConnell could even veto cabinet appointments.
The date of the senate run-offs, 5 January, looms large as another day of destiny for Georgia – and America. At its heart is a woman who, two years after losing, might be on the brink of a spectacular victory. As a CNN article last week noted “For Stacey Abrams, revenge is a dish best served blue (ie Democrat).”
Tearing down barriers
In 2018, the race for governor in Georgia was a highly contested one. The final tally said Abrams lost by just 55,000 votes. But Abrams, who had earned endorsements from Bernie Sanders and Barack Obama, wouldn’t accept the result.
More than one million Georgians had been purged from voter rolls, with nearly 670,000 cancelled from the roles in 2017. An Associated Press analysis revealed that 70% of the cancelled voters were Black – a stark racial disparity since only 32% of Georgia’s population is Black. This would cut deeply into Abrams voter base.
Meanwhile, the person in charge of maintaining the voter rolls was her opponent himself. At the time of the race, Kemp was serving as Georgia secretary of state, a position that oversees the state’s elections – a clear conflict of interest.
The New Yorker, a few weeks before that election day two years ago, ran a profile headlined Brian Kemp is the Martin Shkreli of Voter Suppression. (A reference to Kemp’s insider influence while referencing the notorious ‘Pharma Bro’ who was convicted of fraud for hiking drug prices.)
The New Yorker said of Kemp: “His tenure as secretary of state has been marred by a record of voter suppression and intimidation tactics. In general, it’s impossible to talk about these actions without talking about how they hurt minority turnout.”
Abrams didn’t concede. But she also didn’t stop working.
A Yale educated lawyer by trade, she has now spent years trying to address a sickness at the heart of US democracy: why millions of Americans still cannot access the ballot box, especially people of color and poor communities. And that this problem is only getting worse.
“After 2018, Stacey did not get dejected, demoralized, or decide to sit it out. She went straight to work to tear down barriers to the ballot, and build power for overlooked communities – both in Georgia and around the country,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. “She helped create the infrastructure, the multi-racial coalitions, that is bearing amazing results in Georgia and around the country.”
Prior to her gubernatorial campaign, Abrams had launched The New Georgia Project, a non-partisan group dedicated to broadening the electorate by registering voters. After the 2018 race she went one step further: she launched Fair Fight, an organisation that helped train voter protection teams in states across the country. It also tried to educate and empower young voters of color and encouraged them to register.
The combined efforts of Fair Fight and the New Georgia Project, are credited with registering a staggering 800,00 new voters in the state.
Fair Fight added to the growth in a coalition of grassroots organizers that were cropping up across the state. Black Voters Matter, a multi-state coalition of organizers working in mostly minority neighborhoods, were active all over Georgia. The Urban League of Greater Atlanta, turned out in the suburbs of the state’s largest city. Each with a single purpose: to register voters and get them to turn out.
It worked. From the primary election to the presidential election, Georgia turnout skyrocketed by at least 1 million people since 2016, according to University of Florida professor Michael McDonald, who runs the US Elections Project. In the days after the election, it would be majority Black communities surrounding the cities of Atlanta and Savannah whose votes would push Trump out of his lead position.
And Abrams’ influence didn’t stop in Georgia. As Ben Wikler, chair of the Democratic Party in Wisconsin, recognized, Fair Fight also helped Biden win in Wisconsin and other key swing states this year.
In many ways, it was a referendum, not just on Abrams’ work, but on what could happen in the American south if Black people were allowed to vote with the same access as their white counterparts. This is a fight that has preceded Abrams, but is, in some ways in her blood.
A new movement
Abrams’ parents – both Methodist ministers – were involved in the civil rights movement as teenagers. Her father was arrested for assisting Black communities with registering to vote.
“My parents took us with them when they voted,” she told the Guardian last year. “They talked about why politics mattered. They made certain we watched the news and asked questions, because they wanted us to understand that our engagement, our ability to shape our communities, was directly tied to our votes, and they were very clear that they expected us to be voters.”
She was also frank about the difficulties she has faced as a Black woman running for public office, even in the opinion of the Democratic establishment in Georgia. During her run for the governor’s office in 2018, she considered dropping out of the race after a close mentor declined to endorse her campaign.
“It’s a conversation that helped me understand that this is not simply a trope held by those who oppose me as a Democrat,” she said. “It was a trope held by those who just didn’t believe in the capacity of communities of color to hold power.”
That mission took on a new tenor this year, the same year the country lost John Lewis, the Atlanta-based congressman who embodied the voting rights movement. And the same year when the largest civil rights movement since the 1950s swelled after the death of George Floyd, a Black man murdered by police.
It’s a confluence of these factors, then, that put Georgia back on the map as a state to win. And Abrams has positioned herself deftly in the middle of that, motivated by her own experience and propelled by a new, progressive movement never seen before in Georgia, let alone the American south.
In 2013, the supreme court gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965, meant to protect minorities from prejudiced voting barriers that have plagued the country since Black Americans were given the right to vote in 1868.
The supreme court’s 2013 decision had huge consequences in Georgia, a state that until that point had to get voting changes pre-cleared by the federal government before they went into effect. The state has cut nearly 10% of its polling places since the decision, even though nearly 2 million people have been added to its voter rolls, according to an analysis by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica.
It’s a move that has particularly affected Black voters, who are more likely than white voters to cast their ballots in person. It was to these attacks on the right to vote that Abrams dedicated herself after the 2018 election.
A clear change
Earlier this year, it was clear that Georgia had changed. In the primary election, despite the delays from the pandemic, voters stood in line for hours and overwhelmingly chose Joe Biden as the candidate to face Trump.
It was a sign of what was to come in November. Abrams told CNN on election day that “we have seen dramatic turnout among communities that typically are not at the top of mind for candidates. We have seen them be engaged, be encouraged, and we have seen them turn out.”
Jen Jordan, Georgia’s Democratic senator, told the New York Times that Abrams anticipated the state’s changing demographics: “She saw it coming. The data was there if you wanted to look at it. The problem was nobody was really willing to look at the data.”
Except Stacey Abrams and the grassroots coalition she helped build across Georgia.
In 2018 Brian Kemp won the race to be governor of Georgia. Assuming the 2020 recount changes nothing, then he will have lost the fight to deliver Georgia for the Republicans for the first time in 28 years. On 5 January he will face the might of Abrams once again as she looks to mobilize enough voters to deliver the Senate for the Democrats.
It would be two years too late, but it would be a victory well worth waiting for.