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Opinion Stacey Abrams gives a graduate school class on voter suppression

Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks during a stop on her "Thank You Tour" at the Dalton Convention Center on March 31 in Dalton, Ga. (C.B. Schmelter/Chattanooga Times Free Press via AP)
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If you want to know why Stacey Abrams has electrified many Democrats, take a look at an interview she gave at the Brookings Institution in February where she provided an up-close, extremely detailed account of voter suppression.

She explained that we’ve gone from Jim Crow laws and practices that blocked nonwhites from voting to a more sophisticated system of interlocking components. “Voter suppression acts as a means of denying those policies reality and it is baked into the DNA of America. It has been perfected in recent years, in the last two decades, in a way that lets us forget that it’s real because it has so many pieces, and that’s the architecture.”

She continued, “I think about it in three ways. There is the registration access, making it difficult to get on the rolls. You cannot vote in the United States unless you are signed up to do so. It’s like having a driver’s license. And so what we have found is that depending on the state you’re in, there have been impediments put in place to registration.” She then went through a series of laws in Southern states that block or eliminate voters from the rolls (e.g., purging the rolls).

“Second is ballot access,” she said, ticking off some of the most blatant practices:

If you live in Mississippi or Alabama, you may have to pay a notary public to verify that you have submitted your ballot properly, which means you have to pay someone for the right to vote. So ballot access becomes an issue. It also is an issue with early voting. Moving polling places. Georgia has about 3,000 polling places, precincts. They shut down 214 of them. If you live in a county where there are only two and now there’s one and you don’t have a car, and the one that you used to go to was down the street and the one you have to go to now is 5 to 10 miles away, you’re not going to be able to vote because you don’t have a car. And so ballot access becomes an issue.

And third she said is whether the ballots are actually counted. (“They were throwing out absentee ballots because people put the date in the wrong place because there were two lines that said ‘Date.’ One was birth date and the other was the date that you were submitting it, but it didn’t say ‘Birth Date’ and ‘Date of Submission,’ it just said ‘Date.’ And certain counties were denying the right to vote.”)

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Abrams is one of the most effective communicators in politics today because she has complete command of the facts. She is emphatic, often witty (“I was the first African American woman to ever have the opportunity, and I came this close. I mean, it’s a great narrative, if you like tragedies”) and impassioned. She doesn’t yell or gesticulate for effect; her emotion comes from the compelling story she tells.

She does not smear or name call, but her narrative leaves no doubt as to the motives for the suppression architecture. “What has happened is that you have a new American majority that is largely comprised of people of color, millennials and Gen Z, unmarried white women, and progressives across the country of good conscience regardless of race who have all aligned themselves on the side of certain issues. And the only way to stop those issues from gaining primacy and gaining voice is voter suppression.” In other words, Republicans are trying to hang on as long as possible to a diminishing demographic so they need to whip up the white vote and make it extraordinarily difficult for nonwhites and the poor to vote.

Under the current system, she says, state laws facilitate suppression, as happened in Georgia in her race against Brian Kemp. “When it comes to voter suppression, it is not simply an act of something being illegal. . . . [W]hat he did was entirely legal and wholly wrong. But because the law permits it, the remedies are limited unless you have people who are in power who say that this law should be changed. But you can’t get the people into power because the laws say that they can use that power to stop you from voting.” And there’s another component of her effective communication: She maintains the moral high ground, not allowing the discussion to devolve into mere legalisms.

Her solution is lawsuits (filed under the 14th and 15th amendments), new laws (trying to undo restrictive absentee ballot rules, for example) and advocacy. “We have to continue to tie the vote to the issues because voting by itself is, yeah, okay, final vote. But when people understand that if you want access to health care, you have to vote. If you believe criminal-justice reform is real and true, you have to vote. If you want people to pick up your trash every week and not every two weeks, you have to vote.” Her group, Fair Fight, she says, has the “responsibility . . . to connect the dots between the public policy outcomes that are either impugned by or made real by voting.”

Abrams delivered that February day, as she does time and again, as compelling a description of a political issue that you’ll hear on voting, or most any other issue. And then she shared how she came so close, earning more Democratic votes in the state than any politician, including President Barack Obama. As she spelled it out, one could not help but see how this might be supersized to work on a national level:

Number one, you have to start early. And when you and I had the conversation it was after I’d been in the leadership position in the House for seven years. And over that seven-year period, I had been laying the groundwork for this transformation in our electorate. . . .
And cultural competence matters. It is a real thing. And so what we have been doing since I became leader, I’ve been building a team of young people by and large, because I couldn’t pay them much, they were young, training them to do this work. And also training them to be hired by campaigns because often campaigns tend to relegate communities of color in particular to certain jobs and that’s it. And so we have been working for seven years to build a cohort that was multiracial, multiethnic, reflected religious differences, sexual orientation differences . . .
Number three was that we actually began conversations and community. We didn’t create artificial groups. We asked people who said they were interested what do you want to do, and then we funded them, we resourced that. There were a lot of pundits who decried our campaign for being profligate with our spending because we were spending up to 80 percent of our money every month reaching out to voters, which they thought was insane.

You have to wonder if the current crop of Democratic candidates are doing these things or even know how to do them. If not, they are leaving millions of votes on the table.

If Abrams doesn’t run herself, it’ll be a disappointment to many Democrats. If that is her choice, however, candidates better follow her example if they want to build the sort of coalition that can beat President Trump.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Things Stacey Abrams and Pete Buttigieg get that most other pols don’t

Karen Tumulty: Don’t do it, Stacey Abrams