OUR TIME IS NOW

By Stacey Abrams. Henry Holt. 291 pp. $27.99

Between the day I began reading Stacey Abrams’s new book, “Our Time Is Now,” and the day I finished, multiple new facts about our time became clear: That in our time, more than 100,000 Americans are dead from a pandemic. That in our time, more than 40 million Americans are newly unemployed. That in our time, a white Minneapolis police officer can pin his knee, on a black man’s neck, unimpeded, for more than eight minutes. And that in our time, more than 100 U.S. cities are erupting in frustration and protest.

All this is our time, and America feels like it is running out of it.

Abrams, the former Georgia state legislator who narrowly lost the 2018 governor’s race and is considered a long-shot veep contender for the 2020 Democratic ticket, writes of our time, but also of others that never stop echoing. She begins in 1968, a year when another man sought to win a presidential election by calling for law and order. The author’s grandmother was preparing to cast her first-ever ballot in her home state, Mississippi. It was three years since the Voting Rights Act had passed, but Wilter Abrams remained in her bedroom, “paralyzed by fear,” Abrams writes. After all, laws had changed before, but life hadn’t always followed, not for black families such as theirs. “I’m afraid of the dogs and the police,” she told her husband. “I don’t want to vote.”

Angered, Abrams’s grandfather reminded his wife of the sacrifices they and their children had endured to reach this moment. She finally gathered her courage and headed to the polls. Her grandmother understood the meaning of the Voting Rights Act, Abrams explains: “But she also knew not to expect immediate change, and she was right.”

The tensions between patience and urgency, between fear and resolve, between the promise of someday and the demands of right now, are at the heart of “Our Time Is Now.” Abrams covers plenty of territory — identity politics, voting rights, and the frustrations and revelations of her gubernatorial race — but above all, she writes about the grinding work required to make real the compact of democratic participation.

She looks back on constitutional amendments ending slavery and expanding suffrage, landmark court decisions such as Brown v. Board of Education, and vital legislation such as the Voting Rights Act, but she recognizes each as a step, not an end. “We often see these historical moments as flash points with instant gratification; however, with most movements, the new laws, the new rules, only herald possibility,” Abrams writes. “More must be done to make it so.”

For Abrams, that “more” is the fight against voter suppression, and not only because she believes it played a significant role in her 2018 defeat. “Our Time Is Now” mixes the author’s experiences as a lawmaker, candidate and activist with America’s long history of slowly expanding — and sometimes receding — voting rights. Voting can be “a leap of faith,” Abrams writes. It is faith not just in a candidate or a party, but in a system, one that can be twisted and obstructed at multiple steps along the way.

The first step, voter registration, is an “opaque and confusing” process, Abrams writes, varying wildly from state to state. She describes how registration drives by outside groups are blocked and vilified; how discriminatory “exact match” policies mean that just a missing hyphen or misplaced apostrophe in someone’s name can torpedo an application. Even if you are registered, frequent purging of the voting rolls has become “an effective tool to strip eligible voters of their rights,” Abrams explains. Sometimes the mere fact of not having voted recently suffices to purge a voter — as if constitutional rights just disappear because of the failure to exercise them. “I don’t lose my Second Amendment right if I choose not to go hunting,” Abrams points out, “and I still have freedom of religion if I skip church now and then.”

Even if voters are registered and manage to remain so, their right to be heard is curtailed by limits on absentee ballots, restrictive voter-ID laws, the closure or narrow hours of polling sites, and the difficulty of making provisional ballots actually count. Such measures disproportionately affect minority groups, who are more likely to sign up to vote through third-party registration drives and may face fewer options — for transportation and time off work — to get to the polls. “Modern-day suppression,” Abrams argues, “has swapped rabid dogs and cops with billy clubs for restrictive voter ID and tangled rules for participation.” Partisans who imagine that the demographic transformation of America will magically deliver some new electoral coalition are far too optimistic, she concludes, still living a 2008 high. “Demography is not destiny,” Abrams writes. “It is opportunity.”

The recurring villain of her story is Gov. Brian Kemp, the Republican who defeated Abrams in 2018 and who, as Georgia’s secretary of state at the time, was a candidate in an election he was charged with overseeing. Abrams did not offer a conventional concession to her opponent, she explains, because she believed doing so “would validate the system that slashed voters from the rolls, ensured thousands could not cast ballots, and blocked thousands more from being counted.” Instead, in a speech more than a week after the election, she merely acknowledged that she had no remaining legal remedy. “The system worked as manipulated,” she writes.

But Abrams looks beyond Kemp; other state-level GOP officials across the country “have waged war on voter access,” she contends, “their targets uniformly being people of color, naturalized citizens, and students — all populations more likely to vote Democratic.” The scare tactic of voter fraud is used to justify various barriers, although “the reality of voter theft stands out much more clearly.” More recently, the president has explained that he opposes expanding voting by mail during the coronavirus pandemic, on the overtly partisan grounds that it would hurt Republican candidates.

Abrams’s book appears precisely when voting has been hailed as an alternative form of activism and expression. Hoping to contain the tensions surging in her city last weekend, the mayor of Atlanta delivered an impassioned speech. “If you want change in America, go and register to vote!” Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms urged. “Show up at the polls on June 9th [the state primary]. Do it in November. That is the change we need in this country.” It is an essential plea and consistent with Abrams’s appeals. Yet the book highlights the many obstacles that aspiring voters face, not just procedural or partisan but psychological, too. “One of the most pernicious and salient effects of voter suppression,” she writes, “is that it not only blocks a voter from casting a ballot but convinces others to not bother trying.”

Abrams’s 2018 campaign made massive efforts to reach out to the “unlikely voter,” those who vote only sporadically, those who are easily ignored by campaigns in favor of coveted swing voters. When courted and engaged, unlikely voters “can transform the political landscape,” Abrams writes, but she understands that they are most susceptible to feeling alienated from the entire process — especially when the tools of voter suppression are designed to make people feel as if the failure to vote is always their own fault.

Abrams has been upfront about her desire to become Joe Biden’s pick as the party’s vice-presidential nominee this year. In her book, she nationalizes the implications of her Georgia campaign, lingering on her ability to attract all kinds of voters, unlikely or otherwise. She stresses her success with Latino, Asian and African American voters, but also emphasizes how white suburban women and college-educated white Americans overall were energized by her campaign. Abrams also devotes a chapter to international affairs, lest she be pegged as a foreign policy lightweight. (“I intentionally worked to build a robust understanding of international complexities,” she writes, a bit dutifully.) And though she embraces identity politics in a straightforward way — Americans should be able to pick “between more than two heterosexual white men,” she writes — Abrams knows it is only the beginning, not the end, of her pitch. “We found that my personal story and identity alone could not woo voters, especially black women. . . . More than who I was, voters of all ages and all races wanted to know what I would do.”

We could do worse than electing officials who answer that query by devoting themselves to the protection of Americans’ right to vote. But “Our Time Is Now” is more than just another campaign book. Despite the immediacy of her title, Abrams also takes the long view. She urges fellow Democrats to focus on elections for state legislatures, secretaries of state, attorneys general, school boards, county commissions — “the unmentioned corridors of power we too often cede.” And she stresses that boosting participation in the U.S. census can help reshape and expand representation in America. “Instead of treating the census as a once-a-decade activity, we should use education and voting to directly connect the census to the issues that matter,” she writes. Abrams is focused not just on this year’s census process but on getting more people counted 10 years from now, too: “Otherwise, in 2030, we will once again find ourselves playing catch-up, despite a ten-year head start.”

These are not the priorities of someone fixated on her short-term political prospects, no matter how brightly such ambitions may burn. “Those who cannot vote have no say in the operation of government, which creates a permanent state of powerlessness,” Abrams writes. Yes, she would like to wield power on their behalf, and in the cause of progressive ends. But Abrams mainly wants to level the playing field of voting. She wants a fair fight, as she puts it again and again.

“No assault on democracy will ever be limited to its targets,” Abrams writes. It’s the sentence in this book that I can’t forget. Not when, like Wilter Abrams five decades ago, Americans making their voices heard still have reason to fear the police and those “most vicious dogs” the president threatens to unleash. Not when this is still our time.

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