“I’m from the South and Iowa is cold!” Abrams, who spoke as part of events commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, which gave women the right to vote. “And given that I don’t have another reason to be here camped out like a lot of other folks, I wanted you to know that I’m here because I believe in the autonomy of American bodies and souls and minds and the 19th Amendment gave voice to that for so many.”
Abrams, 45, who became the first black woman to win a major party gubernatorial nomination last year, brought the crowd to its feet when she said she would be “happy” to be the running mate of the eventual Democratic nominee. She has expressed her interest in the vice presidency since announcing in August that she would not run for president or for one of two U.S. Senate seats on Georgia’s ballot next year.
After speaking for 30 minutes, Abrams fielded questions for an hour from the audience and Ben Kieffer of Iowa Public radio, moderator for the session sponsored by the Iowa League of Women Voters and the University of Iowa. In her remarks Abrams traced the struggle of African Americans and other people of color and women for the right the vote since the founding of the country. Initially, she reminded the audience, only “landed white men” had the right to vote. In both her speech and a question from the audience, Abrams argued that the electoral college was not created to ensure fairness for smaller or less populous states but to appease the concerns of Southern slave owners, who wanted enslaved people to be counted to bolster their political power. “They wanted to count the population but not let the population count,” she said.
Despite the passage of constitutional amendments extending voting rights to people of color and women, Abrams said those groups have continued to face hurdles to the ballot box thrown up by both Democrats and Republicans.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 had made it harder for states with a history of discrimination to enact restrictive laws and policies, but it was weakened by a Supreme Court decision in 2013. Since then, she said, most Republican elected officials have moved quickly to shutter polling places, enact tough voter ID laws and remove millions from the voting rolls.
She also pushed back on the notion that such laws were needed to counteract voter fraud. She said voter fraud, as described by defenders of such policies, is a “myth” and the real intent is to discourage women, people of color and young people from voting. Officials then punish people for not voting, Abrams said, citing laws that purge those who haven’t voted in the past several elections from the voting rolls. “I’ve never heard anyone tell me that because I haven’t used my Second Amendment right it has disappeared,” she said.
Despite those setbacks, Abrams said, the centennial of women’s suffrage is cause for celebration.
“Next year we’re going to be reminded every day of the year that in 1920 we made a gigantic step forward in this country,” Abrams told the crowd. “That the same steps made with our constitutional amendments that guaranteed the right to vote regardless of race or creed or nation of origin, expanded to include regardless of gender ... What suffrage in 1920 meant was that we see each other, we trust each other we will invest in each other because even if we don’t’ agree with each other that’s what democracy is."
Abrams cited voter suppression in her narrow loss to Republican Brian Kemp, who continued to serve as Georgia’s secretary of state while he ran for governor. Kemp removed more than 1 million voters from the rolls and blocked tens of thousands of registrations over minor discrepancies between information on voters’ applications and state databases.
Although Abrams ended her campaign 10 days after the election, she refused to concede and launched Fair Fight to focus on voting rights. The group filed a lawsuit seeking improvements in the state’s election process. A few months ago, Fair Fight Action, the political action arm of the group, launched an initiative aimed at protecting voting rights in 20 battleground states. Iowa is one of the states included in Fair Fight 2020.
Iowa’s voter registration law was approved in 2017, but has been tied up in the courts with groups seeking to have the law thrown out on the grounds that it would disproportionately affect voters who were elderly, poor and people of color. The courts rejected that argument and voters will have to present ID on Tuesday when several municipalities across the state hold elections.
“Iowa is the first in the nation to cast their ballots and epitomize the right to vote,” Abrams, referring to the Feb. 3 Democratic caucuses, said in an interview an after the event. “Unfortunately in Iowa, we know that voter suppression has been put on the docket through their new voter ID laws. So when invited to be here, there was no question in my mind. I believe in taking full advantage of the opportunity to lift up the conversation, not only about voting rights but our need to fight voter suppression.”