On November 16, former Georgia House minority leader Stacey Abrams stood in front of glum supporters and confirmed what they already knew: The Democrat would not be their state’s next governor, or the first black female governor in the United States. Her Republican opponent, former Georgia secretary of state Brian Kemp, had declared victory the week before; in a rancorous race that had been too close to call on election night, Kemp had eked out a narrow win. Abrams’s speech recognizing defeat lacked the usual hallmarks of yielding an election. It was devoid of platitudes about a tough but fair fight, and her language was pointed and defiant. “Let’s be clear: This is not a speech of concession, because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true, or proper,” she said. “As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that.”
Instead, Abrams emphasized a message she’d been delivering since before her campaign began, a warning about right-wing efforts to strategically reduce voter turnout in areas likely to vote blue. “Georgia citizens tried to exercise their constitutional rights and were still denied the ability to elect their leaders,” Abrams said. “Under the watch of the now former secretary of state, democracy failed Georgia. Georgians of every political party, every race, every region. Again.” Abrams echoed this concern in an email to The Ringer. “We will hold our leaders accountable because there is critical work ahead to ensure our state works for everyone.”
Kemp served as secretary of state throughout his campaign for governor; his office’s approach to elections included massive voting roll purges and stringent voter registration rules, which Abrams criticized as voter suppression. The animosity was mutual: Kemp investigated the voting rights nonprofit Abrams had founded, the New Georgia Project, despite the conflict of interest inherent to investigating a current political rival. Abrams pushed the issue of voter suppression into the national conversation with urgency, and emerged as an avatar for voting rights in the United States even after her defeat. She is still fighting to change how elections work in her home state, to affirm the right of all Georgians to vote. “The fight for fairness in elections is just beginning, and I will be a part of that,” Abrams told the San Francisco Chronicle’s It’s All Political podcast in December. “I cannot know what would have happened, I cannot know what the final outcome would have been had this been a free and fair election. My responsibility as a public servant is to guarantee that no one else has to live with the uncertainty.”
The showdown between Abrams, a pragmatic liberal, and Kemp, an autocratic conservative, highlighted how two contradictory stories about voting have taken root in American politics, and how irreconcilable these narratives are. “It’s become an election about elections,” my colleague Justin Charity wrote at the time. As they campaigned, both candidates spoke of grave concerns about the integrity of the voting process. Team Kemp wanted Georgians to worry about impostors at the polls; Kemp also accused Georgia Democrats of hacking the state’s voter registration system without providing evidence. Abrams, meanwhile, drew attention to obstacles making it disproportionately harder for black people and poor people to vote. She (along with many others, including former Georgia governor and U.S. president Jimmy Carter) found Kemp’s refusal to resign his position as secretary of state during the election to be a conflict of interest and abuse of power. Their race distilled an ideological impasse down to a single, basic conflict — the endangerment of democracy — with two very different understandings of that threat. For Kemp, the issue that mattered was voter fraud. For Abrams, the issue was voter suppression.
The idea that widespread, in-person voter fraud is threatening American elections is not Kemp’s alone. President Donald Trump, outgoing Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, and a number of other prominent GOP figures have argued that the states need to create stricter guidelines to prevent malevolent forces from invading elections disguised as real Americans. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted in November 2016, shortly after the election, in an attempt to further the theory that the United States had an epidemic of sham voters at its polls. Like “trickle-down economics” or “the axis of evil,” it is not a coherent articulation of a perspective so much as it is useful shorthand to justify partisan policies. This spooky tale about con artists of dubious origin flocking to the polls is a popular one. “Voter ID laws are incredibly popular in the public,” MIT political science professor Charles Stewart III told The Ringer. “Just about every Republican favors them, and the bare majority of Democrats favor them as well.”
Laws making it more cumbersome to vote are often billed as antidotes to fearsome voter fraud, necessary correctives that will preserve our freedom. Many critics, including Abrams, see these initiatives as something entirely different — as voter-suppression tactics cloaked in appealing language about protecting the United States. “The use of baseless voter fraud allegations for partisan advantage has become the exclusive domain of Republican Party activists. … The claim that voter fraud threatens the integrity of American elections is itself a fraud,” political science professor Lorraine C. Minnite wrote in her 2010 book The Politics of Voter Fraud, noting that success in voter registration drives for low-income people and nonwhite people has threatened the GOP by expanding the Democratic Party’s reach. “It is being used to persuade the public that deceitful and criminal voters are manipulating the electoral system. No available evidence suggests that voters are intentionally corrupting the electoral process, let alone in numbers that dilute and cancel out the lawful votes of the vast majority of Americans.”
Studies into voter fraud have repeatedly concluded that it is not a viable threat to American elections. “Many Americans appear to believe that voter fraud is common and yet academic and journalistic research implies that it is very, very rare,” Dartmouth professor of government Michael C. Herron commented after conducting a study evaluating Trump’s claims about voter fraud in 2016. “Many of these allegations of voter fraud were based on concerns that massive numbers of non-citizens would cast ballots in the election; however, my co-authors and I found no evidence that there was rampant voter fraud in the 2016 presidential election. As we note in the study, the voter fraud fears fomented and espoused by the Trump campaign are not grounded in any observable features of the election.” Even data compiled in efforts to bolster claims that voter fraud is a serious threat has undermined the Trumpian vision of impostors running amok. “Kansas’ secretary of state examined 84 million votes cast in 22 states to look for duplicate registrants,” The Washington Post reported in 2014. “In the end 14 cases were referred for prosecution, representing 0.00000017 percent of the votes cast.”
There is a serious fraud scandal connected to a recent House election in North Carolina; however, it does not confirm the Republican narrative about voter fraud so much as it exposes its inconsistent logic. The state’s Board of Elections has not certified the results in the 9th Congressional District, which GOP candidate Mark Harris won by 905 votes. Allegations about Republican operative Leslie McCrae Dowless forging absentee ballots have cast doubt upon the validity of that outcome; the board is considering a new election. The fact that this happened at all does fit into the Republican theory that voter fraud is a worthwhile concern, but it does not bolster the idea that in-person fraud is a serious threat. If anything, it draws attention to how many GOP initiatives ostensibly aimed at preventing voter fraud make it difficult for poor people and black people to vote but don’t prevent the sort of scheme Dowless is accused of perpetrating.
While in-person voter fraud has never posed a serious threat to American democracy, voter suppression — trying to prevent, discourage, or outright thwart citizens in their attempts to exercise their right to vote — has a heavily documented, dark history, particularly in former Confederate states like Georgia. Historian and Emory University professor Carol Anderson traced this history in her book One Person, No Vote, released this fall. Anderson details the brazen tactics, from poll taxes to literacy tests, designed to disenfranchise black people after the Civil War, through the Jim Crow era and well into the 1960s. She details the monumental difference the Voting Rights Act made when it became law in 1965 by ensuring that the federal government would supervise how states with histories of discrimination operate their elections. “Rather than passively waiting for locales to violate the rights of American citizens and then sitting still until those who had been routinely brutalized by this system made a formal complaint, the VRA put the responsibility for adhering to the Constitution onto state and local governments,” Anderson wrote.
The VRA partially stymied conservative Southern politicians who wanted to create obstacles for voters unlikely to cast ballots for Republicans; Anderson’s book details how politicians circumvented its protections and how activists fought back — and why she views the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder as a pivotal moment for voting rights. “The Court decided that the VRA was unfair … because blacks had won multiple elections and were voting in record numbers, and thus unfair because the racism of the past, which had led to the creation of the VRA, obviously no longer determined access to the polls,” she wrote. “The Shelby County v. Holder decision thus gutted Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which determined which locales came under federal oversight. With that, the GOP-led states, as if this were Alabama in the early 1980s, asserted that it was voter fraud, and not voter suppression, that required the full machinery of government to eradicate.” After the decision, states formerly under VRA oversight could now more easily change how they ran elections.
“This was the first presidential election in 50 years without the protection of the Voting Rights Act,” Anderson told The Ringer. She said that election analysts did not take the impact of voter suppression seriously enough when evaluating why Trump won the 2016 election, and that pundits leaned too heavily on the ideas that Hillary Clinton’s failure to energize minority voters or her decision not to travel to Wisconsin right before the election were to blame for her defeat, without also considering voter suppression as a factor. “This is not to say that Hillary was not a flawed candidate. But this is to say that when that is the alpha and omega of your analysis, then you’re missing the pernicious effect of these voter suppression laws on the American electorate,” Anderson said. “You’re studying lung cancer and you’re not looking at cigarettes.”
Anderson sees the rash of new voter ID laws and other similar restrictions put in place since 2013 as integral to understanding how elections are being jeopardized today. “I think back to the era of Jim Crow, where that shut down the voices of American citizens to maintain the power of a few,” she said. “That’s what they’re trying to implement and re-create right now.” Abrams shares Anderson’s concerns about the decline in voting rights since the 2013 Supreme Court decision. “Since the Voting Rights Act was gutted, bad actors have wielded power to slowly and systemically disenfranchise voters. People of color, women, students, and low-income Georgians are the most affected,” Abrams told The Ringer. “And instead of taking a band-aid approach, fixing one issue at a time, we must restore voting rights by reforming the whole system so that [it] works for every Georgian.”
Abrams made the resurgence of voter suppression in Georgia a cornerstone campaign issue, and her interest predates the 2018 election. She founded the New Georgia Project in 2013 to increase registration in her state. The nonprofit mobilized to register and inform voters before the midterms; while it made large strides in getting new voters set up to exercise their rights, its members are well aware of the challenges they face. “Because of the size and the scope and the scale of our voter registration efforts and our civic engagement efforts, generally we’ve been able to act sort of like a stress test on Georgia’s electoral system,” Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project, told The Ringer, noting that the group had identified deficiencies in the electoral system.
One such deficiency: “exact match,” a flawed law that requires all voting registrations with even minuscule discrepancies (like a misspelled name) to be flagged. A District Court judge ruled against the law in November, on the grounds that it placed a severe burden on voters, but only after the Associated Press found that Kemp’s secretary of state office had put a whopping 53,000 registrations on hold using the law. The AP found a racial disparity in the withheld registrations. “Georgia’s population is approximately 32 percent black, according to the U.S. Census, but the list of voter registrations on hold with Kemp’s office is nearly 70 percent black,” the report states. Kemp’s office blamed the New Georgia Project for this, accusing it of not properly training its canvassers. Ufot noted that the “exact match” law was just one of many tactics used to dissuade people from voting. “Closing down polling locations in black neighborhoods. Just making it more difficult. Doubling, tripling, quadrupling peoples’ commutes to vote. Telling people who were eligible to vote that they weren’t on the voter rolls. The overuse of provisional ballots. Actual sheriff’s deputies in full uniform blocking voters’ access, so voters would have to physically move their bodies around sheriff’s deputies in order to get into the polling location, which is an act of intimidation.”
Abrams railed against voter suppression tactics on the campaign trail, and the final speech of her candidacy made it clear that she believes voter suppression has damaged the integrity of Georgia’s elections. “Georgia still has a decision to make about who we will be in the next election, and the one after that,” she said. “Make no mistake: The former secretary of state was deliberate and intentional in his actions. I know that eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process in Georgia.” While she is not contesting Kemp’s victory, she is continuing to lead a reformist charge into 2019. On November 27, the Abrams-backed nonprofit Fair Fight Action, along with Care in Action, a nonprofit that organizes domestic workers, filed a lawsuit challenging Georgia’s election laws. “The Secretary of State and State Election Board (‘Defendants’) grossly mismanaged an election that deprived Georgia citizens, and particularly citizens of color, of their fundamental right to vote,” the complaint begins. The lawsuit details the long list of voting obstacles many Georgians face, including registration applications stuck in limbo due to a flawed name-matching database, voter purges knocking over a million citizens from registries, and the closure of polling places predominantly affecting people of color. “I believe we must explore all avenues to eradicate voter suppression and election mismanagement in Georgia. There are certain fights we must bring to the legislature, and as House Minority Leader I was proud to include several of them in our caucus agenda,” Abrams said. “But what we saw in 2018 was the gross mismanagement of the administration of elections — and that is why legal action was also necessary.”
The lawsuit, though savvy, will be a tough win. While there is clear evidence that voter suppression laws put unfair burdens disproportionately on black voters and poor voters, it will be difficult to prove that these laws are intentionally discriminatory, and the burden of proof is on the plaintiff. However, as law professor Richard L. Hasen noted for Slate, there is precedent that allows for hope. “We do know that some other lawsuits attacking pieces of Georgia’s system have been successful, such as an attack on some of the absentee voting rules and the exact match system,” Hasen wrote. “A federal court has also strongly suggested that it will find Georgia’s voter registration system so flawed in terms of its security as to be unconstitutional.” By filing the suit now instead of waiting until closer to 2020, Fair Fight has given itself the best possible chance to force reform in time to make a difference in the next major election season. “We are using every tool in the tool box; aside from our voting rights litigation and advocating we are currently running digital and television ads — in both English and Spanish — urging Georgians to get health care insurance during the ACA’s Open Enrollment period,” Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo told The Ringer via email. “All of this is going to be a hard-fought battle,” Anderson said. “We have to stay engaged. We cannot become complacent. Democracy is worth fighting for.”
Meanwhile, the first voting-rights nonprofit Abrams began is also fighting voter suppression with a number of different strategies, including lobbying for legislative changes. “We want to restore the Voting Rights Act,” Ufot said. “We also want to push in the 2019 legislative session for basically a Georgia version of the Voting Rights Act. We’re calling it a Georgia Voter Bill of Rights. And the idea is to plug in all of these holes that made it possible for Brian Kemp to steal the Governor’s seat, and to make sure that that never happens again with Georgia elections.”
Abrams is not done with politics: “Yes, I will run for office one day,” Abrams told The Ringer. “For now I am taking time as a private citizen to reflect on my next steps.” In the meantime, she has succeeded in placing voter suppression under intense national scrutiny. “People tried to make us feel like we were being shrill and alarmist and hyperbolic about the voter suppression that was happening,” Ufot said. “Given the results of the election, I maintain that we were not paying enough attention.”