Stacey Abrams sets the stage for a fight for voters’ rights

ATLANTA — Former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams testified about systemic voting problems at a House subcommittee hearing this week, intensifying the spotlight on her home state of Georgia in the run-up to the 2020 election.

The hearing brought together congressional Democrats including Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis to hear the testimony of Abrams and other voting rights activists, who are deeply engaged in a battle to overcome voter suppression.

“I am deeply concerned about the impact on our democracy if action is not taken immediately,” Abrams said. “From issues with registration to ballot access to the counting of votes, Georgia faced a systemic breakdown in its electoral process.”

Abrams lost the governor’s race in November under highly unusual conditions. Her opponent, Brian Kemp, was Georgia’s secretary of state at the time of the election and was therefore in charge of overseeing the election itself. Kemp’s conduct was described by the president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People Derrick Johnson as “textbook voter suppression.”

Earlier this month Abrams outlined the Democrats’ renewed focus on voting rights in her State of the Union rebuttal, calling it “the next battle for our democracy.”

“We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a power grab,” Abrams said. “The foundation of our moral leadership around the globe is free and fair elections, where voters pick their leaders, not where politicians pick their voters.”

The voting rights advocacy organization Fair Fight, which Abrams founded, is involved in multiple lawsuits to address what they call, “irregularities and mismanagement” that took place during the 2018 election in Georgia. The organization’s lawsuit filed in December challenging Georgia’s paperless voting machines has been allowed to proceed after Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger worked to have it dismissed with claims that “a variety of independent and unrelated actions by mostly local official[s] somehow resulted in a series of constitutional violations that require massive judicial intervention.”

In the meantime, Fair Fight continues to implement various voter education and reform programs in preparation for the 2020 election season including targeted voter outreach education, and direct voting reform lobbying within Georgia. Organizations across the state including Black Votes Matter, Democratic Party of Georgia, and Care Action, have followed Fair Fight’s lead by implementing voter reform and voter education programs.

The Democratic Party of Georgia created the position of  Voter Protection Director, a permanent post in charge of protecting the integrity of elections throughout the state of Georgia. The current director, Sara Tindall Ghazal, is working with data collected through the party’s voter hotline, used throughout 2018, to determine what steps must be taken to address voter concerns before the 2020 election. The data collected from the hotline detailing everything from instances of voter registration denial, poll closings, and other voting irregularities has served as a tool to determine trends throughout the state.

“I will be sharing our findings with the County Election Boards because they are the ones who make the decisions for resource allocations for the 2020 elections, this year,” Ghazal said. With over 150 counties throughout the state of Georgia, Ghazal is also working to support local Democratic committees by providing tools that will aid in voter registration and education which will, in turn, assist local Democratic candidates who are running for local offices.

At Noni’s, a neighborhood eatery in the heart of downtown Atlanta, Fair Fight hosted a watch party for a diverse crowd watching Abrams’ rebuttal on Feb. 5.

Attendees received placards with the words “Free and Fair Elections for All” boldly printed on them, and just before Abrams’ speech began, Democratic State Representative Park Cannon addressed the crowd.

“This is a black history moment,” Cannon said as she prepared the crowd, stressing that voter suppression is an issue beyond party politics.“We are working to start a purple wave as we invite new folks to join our blue wave.” Cannon also reiterated the importance of the work of Fair Fight in the current political climate, referring to the current administration as “unrightfully elected people telling us what to do after being racist, homophobic, and xenophobic.”

She closed her speech by making sure the crowd understood the fight for voters’ rights was just beginning as she exited her makeshift stage leading an “Abrams Address” chant.

Abrams is the first black woman to ever give the State of the Union rebuttal, which also covered the expansion of healthcare, the importance of community in America and equality in the American education system.

She rebuked the actions of President Trump as she referred to the government shutdown as a “stunt, engineered by the president of the United States.” Throughout the speech, Abrams focused on the importance of returning the power to the citizens of America, rather than placing that power in the hands of politicians and political groups.

The foremost theme of Abrams’ address was the importance of maintaining values and fairness, driving home her point about equal access to the vote.

She listed many of the reported forms of voter suppression throughout the country, including some reported specifically in Georgia during her 2018 gubernatorial election, “from making it harder to register and stay on the rolls, to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots.”

A recent investigation by the non-profit Coalition for Good Governance has found another irregularity in that vote. About 127,000 ballots, a majority of whom were cast by black Democrats, did not have a recorded vote for lieutenant governor. While officials claim that voters simply missed that selection after making their choice for governor, a drop-off rate this significant has never been seen before, reaching 4 percent when the previous average recorded rate is less than 1 percent.

The House subcommittee on elections will continue to hold hearings across the country, exploring how 2013 changes to the 1965 Voting Rights Act may be allowing what Abrams referred to as “states’ and localities’ race to restore or manufacture new blocks on voting.”

Cardine Johnson is a GroundTruth Voting Rights Reporting fellow and a graduate student at Georgia State University.