Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks at a news conference in Atlanta last week. (Alyssa Pointer/Atlanta Journal-Constitution via AP)
Opinion writer

Stacey Abrams, the defeated Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, got quizzed on CNN’s “State of the Union” about her comments regarding the election. It’s worth quoting at length to see how she addressed election results tainted by irregularities.

[JAKE] TAPPER: Take a listen to what Ohio Democratic Senator Sherrod Brown said about your race just a few days ago.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

SEN. SHERROD BROWN (D), OHIO: If Stacey Abrams doesn’t win in Georgia, they stole it. It’s clear. It’s clear. Now, I would say — I say that publicly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

TAPPER: So, Sherrod Brown says the election was stolen.

Do you agree that it was stolen? And do you think that Brian Kemp is not the legitimate governor-elect of Georgia?

ABRAMS: The law, as it stands, says that he received an adequate number of votes to become the governor of Georgia. And I acknowledge the law as it stands. I am a lawyer by training. And I am someone who’s taken a constitutional oath to uphold the law. But we know, sometimes, the law does not do what it should and that something being legal does not make it right. This is someone who has compromised our systems. He’s compromised our democratic systems. And that is not appropriate. . . .

TAPPER: Is he the legitimate governor-elect of Georgia?

ABRAMS: He is the person who won an adequate number of votes to become the governor…

TAPPER: You’re not using the word legitimate. Is he the legitimate governor-elect of Georgia?

ABRAMS: He is the legal governor of Georgia.

And here’s the thing, Jake. I want to be very clear. Words have meaning. And I have spent my lifetime not only as an attorney, but as a writer. And I’m very careful with the words I choose.

And, yes, when he takes the oath of office, he will be the legal governor of the state of Georgia. He is the legal victor.

But what you are looking for me to say is that there was no compromise of our democracy, and that there should be some political compromise in the language I use. And that’s not right.

What’s not right is saying that something was done properly, when it was not. I will never deny the legal — the legal imprimatur that says that he is in this position. And I pray for his success.

But will I say that this election was not tainted, was not a disinvestment and a disenfranchisement of thousands of voters? I will not say that. . . .

TAPPER: Are you — are you at all concerned that your words this morning and in your speech Friday will undermine faith in the democratic process?

ABRAMS: Not at all, because the words I use are very specific.

We have had systematic disenfranchisement of voters. We have seen gross mismanagement of our elections. And we have seen an erosion of faith in our democracy in our state. Those are all true facts.

But these are all solvable problems. And that’s why I’m proud to be an American. That’s why I’m proud to be a Georgian. And it’s why I’m taking up Fair Fight Georgia, because faith is not enough. We have to have action married to that faith.

And I don’t believe that you are trying to cast aspersions or cause me to say anything, but what I am being clear about is that I’m choosing my words very carefully because words have meaning. . . .

TAPPER: I want to just give you an opportunity to answer this, because this is going to be the big question coming out of this interview.

President Trump, based on no evidence, cast all sorts of aspersions on the election in Florida, and what was going on with the recounts and what was going on with the counts. He alleged fraud. He alleged theft. And he was criticized widely by Democrats and Republicans for doing so.

How is what you’re doing any different from what he did?

ABRAMS: My accusations are based entirely on evidence.

We had four different federal judges in the course of a week say that what we witnessed was wrong and forced better behavior.

And what I’m simply asking for is another court to force even stronger behaviors, legal reforms that will guarantee that no one has to question the legitimacy of our election.

Dan Gasaway is a Republican who lost a Republican primary because they failed to adequately provide ballots that were accurate. That was under Brian Kemp’s watch.

And so this is not something that simply affected Democrats. This is not partisan. The head of the tea party in Georgia, Debbie Dooley, pointed out the gross mismanagement of how we administer absentee ballots.

This conversation provides some guidance for how we talk about election results.

First, unless there is direct evidence of voter fraud, we should not use words like “stolen” in connection with elections. Brown was wrong to do it; saying the Republicans do it more often, as he did in his “Meet the Press” interview, is simply another form of “whataboutism.” As voting guru Rick Hasen argues, such language only “feeds a growing cycle of mistrust and delegitimization of the election process, an attack pushed by President Trump and other Republicans” that might lead Trump in 2020 to “refuse to concede the 2020 presidential election if he is ahead in the count on election night and then ballot counts inevitably shift toward Democrats as the counting continues.”

Second, you better have facts and specifics (as Abrams did and Trump did not) when questioning election practices. Moreover, Abrams raised legitimate issues before the votes were counted, bolstering her argument that her concerns were about efforts to disenfranchise voters, not about who was winning.

Third, the distinction between “legal” and “legitimate” is a tricky one, but here is the difference: There is legal legitimacy (what Abrams said amounted to getting more votes), and then there is moral legitimacy. If you take active measures to disenfranchise voters you think will vote against you (without a shred of evidence of voter fraud to justify your actions), you’re not in a good position to argue you have the latter.

Moral legitimacy in a democracy comes from free and fair elections. American elections are distinguishable from phony elections that dictators run because, among other things, the outcome in American elections is not determined in advance and the popular will is respected. To the extent the Brian Kemps (or the Russians) put their fingers on the scale, the winner does risk a loss of moral legitimacy. You cannot systematically disenfranchise thousands of voters and claim your win is without taint.

Finally, it’s a disgrace that we make it so hard to vote and do not have a method for quickly and transparently tabulating results. We need to repair the preclearance measures under the Voting Rights Act that were struck down in 2013, institute voting by mail and automatic registration and, finally, strive for a system in which long lines for voting become a thing of the past. A candidate cannot have authority over elections in which he or she is a candidate.

By focusing on the voter suppression Abrams points us in the right direction. As Hasen says, “the right question is why the state gets to put stumbling blocks in front of voters—such as onerous voter registration requirements and easy voter-purge rules—without offering a good reason for doing so. … By focusing on the dignity and respect to be afforded to each voter, we can push to maximize the number of eligible voters who are enfranchised and able to cast a ballot that will count, regardless of election outcomes.”

If one party is opposed to those measures to expand voting access, you really have to question if its candidates and officials support free and fair elections. When a party cannot win in which every legal voter gets to vote (as Kemp acknowledged), it needs to rethink the message and get new messengers.