When Stacey Abrams delivered her rebuttal to the State of the Union address on Tuesday, she took President Trump to task for many problems. But her main focus was an issue even bigger than the president.
In her speech, Abrams, last year’s Democratic gubernatorial nominee in Georgia, argued that voter suppression disenfranchises people of color, women and the poor. Addressing this by expanding voting rights must be the primary issue for Democrats in 2020, she said. The party’s ability to execute its agenda lies in the balance.
“We can do so much more: take action on climate change. Defend individual liberties with fair-minded judges. But none of these ambitions are possible without the bedrock guarantee of our right to vote,” she said. “Let’s be clear: voter suppression is real. From making it harder to register and stay on the rolls to moving and closing polling places to rejecting lawful ballots, we can no longer ignore these threats to democracy.”
In her speech, Abrams made it personal, too.
“While I acknowledged the results of the 2018 election here in Georgia, I did not and we cannot accept efforts to undermine our right to vote,” she said. “That’s why I started a nonpartisan organization called Fair Fight to advocate for voting rights.”
Abrams narrowly lost her race to become America’s first black female governor in 2018. Her election race against Republican Brian Kemp was rife with accusations of voter suppression. Kemp was Georgia’s secretary of state and had oversight of Georgia’s voting laws. In that capacity, he put some 53,000 applications to vote in the 2018 midterms on hold. The majority of those applications came from people of color, women and other groups aligned with Democrats.
The problem of unfair elections goes way beyond Georgia. A 2018 poll by the Atlantic and Public Religion Research Institute found that nearly 10 percent of black and Hispanic voters were told they didn’t have the right identification to vote in 2016. About the same percent said they were told, incorrectly, that they weren’t listed on voter rolls. “In all, across just about every issue identified as a common barrier to voting, black and Hispanic respondents were twice as likely, or more, to have experienced those barriers as white respondents,” the study found.
In her speech, Abrams put it this way: “This is the next battle for our democracy, one where all eligible citizens can have their say about the vision we want for our country. We must reject the cynicism that says allowing every eligible vote to be cast and counted is a ‘power grab,’ " she said. “Americans understand that these are the values our brave men and women in uniform and our veterans risk their lives to defend. 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.”
“Power grab” is a reference to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). McConnell, who recently used that phrase to attack Democrats for pushing legislation to make Election Day a national holiday. It also echoes the language Trump uses when talking about voter fraud. Though studies have found no evidence of widespread fraud, the president often refers to the issue to make the case for tighter voting restrictions.
By openly citing a powerful Republican, Abrams sought to draw a clear line in the sand: There’s only one party that wants to make it easier for voices heard at the ballot. And that’s the Democrats.