The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Stacey Abrams’s rhetorical twist on being an election denier

(John Bazemore/AP)

“I have never denied that I lost. I don’t live in the governor’s mansion; I would have noticed.”

— Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, interview on “The View,” Sept. 14, 2022

“We had this little election back in 2018. And despite the final tally and the inauguration and the situation we find ourselves in, I do have one very affirmative statement to make. We won.”

— Abrams, speech at the National Action Network convention, April 4, 2019

In 2018, Abrams lost a bitter election to become Georgia’s governor to Brian Kemp, then the state’s secretary of state, and refused to concede after suggesting that Kemp used his position to manipulate his way to victory.

Now, Abrams is in a rematch with Kemp, fending off questions from reporters that she’s little different from former president Donald Trump, who has falsely claimed election fraud led to his defeat by Joe Biden. In recent weeks she has subtly adjusted language to argue that, unlike Trump, she “never denied the election” and “never denied that I lost.”

“The difference [with Trump] is very stark when I did not win my election in 2018,” she told Yahoo News in August. “The first thing I said was that I acknowledged the outcome — that the new governor was Brian Kemp. I was not the governor, but I did say the system was broken.”

In an interview with the 19th this month, Abrams said: “My point was that the access to the election was flawed, and I refuse to concede a system that permits citizens to be denied access. That is very different than someone claiming fraudulent outcome.”

Abrams, in her non-concession speech, did acknowledge Kemp “will be certified as the victor of the 2018 gubernatorial election.” But a review of numerous interviews shows that Abrams subsequently used language denying the outcome of the election that she now appears to be trying to play down.

For instance, Abrams at various times has said the election was “stolen” and even, in a New York Times interview, that “I won.” She suggested that election laws were “rigged” and that it was “not a free or fair election.” She also claimed that voter suppression was to blame for her loss, even though she admitted she could not “empirically” prove that. While she did acknowledged Kemp was the governor, she refused to say he was the “legitimate” governor.

Abrams made these claims while often leaving herself a rhetorical exit. When she said the election was stolen, she often hastened to add it was “stolen from the people of Georgia.” Moreover, unlike Trump, Abrams has not attempted to rile supporters to violence or call into question the outcome of the election before it takes place. Instead, she has encouraged more people to register to vote and filed successful lawsuits that made voting easier and many experts believe helped Democrats win in 2020. Earlier this month, her spokesman told The Washington Post that she “will acknowledge the victor of the 2022 election.”

“She never failed to acknowledge the legal outcome of an election,” a campaign spokesman said in a lengthy statement to the Fact Checker. “Over the last few years, she has used different frames to describe what took place in 2018 but the sentiment remains the same: she acknowledged that Brian Kemp was the victor in the race and also acknowledged that many Georgians were denied the opportunity to make their voices heard due to voter suppression.”

Abrams repeatedly questioned the integrity of Kemp’s victory as her rising stardom in the national Democratic Party in 2019 prompted widespread speculation that she might run for president.

But what might have appeared at the time as a savvy appeal to voters who felt disenfranchised looks different now that Trump and his GOP allies have taken election denialism to a dangerous new level. Today, the Republican Party is dominated by candidates who echo Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was stolen, a trend that has undermined faith in election outcomes and destabilized American democracy.

Abrams played up claims the election was stolen until such tactics became untenable for anyone who claims to be an advocate for American democratic norms and values.

The debate over the election

Before we review how Abrams has discussed the election, it is helpful to understand the context.

Kemp beat Abrams, who had been the Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives, by 1.4 percentage points, or about 55,000 votes. Kemp, who as secretary of state at the time was Georgia’s top elections official, refused to recuse himself from overseeing the election — a potential conflict of interest criticized by Abrams and others, such as former president Jimmy Carter.

Democrats often cite this litany as examples of possible voter suppression.

  • Kemp oversaw an aggressive effort as secretary of state to update eligible voter lists before the 2018 election. Nearly 700,000 names, or 10 percent, were removed from the rolls in the year before the election. “For an estimated 107,000 of those people, their removal from the voter rolls was triggered not because they moved or died or went to prison, but rather because they had decided not to vote in prior elections,” according to a report by American Public Media.
  • Kemp’s office placed 53,000 voter registrations in electoral limbo in October, with the Associated Press estimating that 70 percent were Black voters. The move was the result of an “exact match” policy in which even a single digit or a misplaced hyphen could derail the registration. No one knows how many of those voters turned up to vote.
  • More than 200 polling places across the state were closed, primarily in poor and minority neighborhoods. Voters reported long lines, malfunctioning voting machines and other problems that delayed or thwarted voting in those areas. The Atlanta Journal Constitution found that precinct closures and longer distances likely prevented an estimated 54,000 to 85,000 voters from casting ballots on Election Day.

But there’s also a compelling counterargument.

  • Even if every provisional ballot not counted and every rejected absentee ballot had been awarded to Abrams, it would not have necessitated a runoff, much less overcome Abrams’s vote deficit.
  • The 2018 turnout was far greater than any previous midterm, according to FiveThirtyEight, and more African Americans voted in 2018 than in 2016.
  • Even if 54,000 to 84,000 had not voted because of precinct closings, “Abrams would have had to have won between 82% and 100% of those additional votes to close the gap,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution said.
  • Georgia purges lots of voters because of death, moving or not voting in recent elections, but it also makes it very easy to register because of automatic voter registration (AVR) when people obtain driver’s licenses. Registration has grown 94 percent in Georgia because of automatic voter registration, according to the Brennan Center.

Abrams in 2018

Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D) accepted an electoral loss to Republican Brian Kemp during remarks to supporters on Nov. 16, 2018. (Video: Reuters)

Ten days after the election, on Nov. 16, Abrams declared: “I acknowledge that Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor of the 2018 gubernatorial election …. But let’s be clear, this is not a speech of concession because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper.”

When asked a couple of days later by CNN’s Jake Tapper if Kemp was the “legitimate governor-elect of Georgia,” Abrams dodged. “He is the person who won an adequate number of votes to become the governor,” she replied. When Tapper noted she refused to use the word “legitimate,” Abrams answered: “He is the legal governor of Georgia.”

The next day, on MSNBC, Abrams said “it was not a free and fair election,” citing what she regarded as voter purges. Brian Kemp oversaw for eight years the systematic and systemic dismantling of our democracy and that means there could not be free and fair elections in Georgia this year.”

Abrams in 2019

The following year, when Abrams was mentioned as a possible presidential candidate, Abrams began to assert that she had “won” the election. Sometimes this was carefully couched, but at other times, it was not.

In a March conversation with Rashad Robinson, the president of the Color of Change advocacy group, Abrams spoke about what attributes she would bring to the presidential race, including: “I did win my election, I just didn’t get to have the job.”

A few days later, on “The View,” Abrams put it this way: “I can’t say that empirically I won, but I will never know because we did not have a fair fight. And my responsibility was to acknowledge that he had the numbers, but to call out the fact that the process was wrong.”

Also in March, she told the Grio: “I may not have won this election, or at least, but I didn’t lose, I got the votes. But we won’t know exactly how many because of how they cheated.” In an appearance in London, she declared: Kemp “got to be the contestant, the referee and the scorekeeper — and shockingly, he won. Or at least that’s what he tells us. But I know in my heart of hearts, we won.”

Her most emphatic statement came at the National Action Network convention in April: “We had this little election back in 2018. And despite the final tally and the inauguration and the situation we find ourselves in, I do have one very affirmative statement to make. We won.”

The audience erupted in cheers.

Recently, in a September interview with “The View,” Abrams tried to explain away this declaration. “There’s this clip that’s going around and it shows me saying that we won, and what I was referring to was that we won in terms of communities that were long left out of the electoral process,” she said. But a review of the full speech shows she did not immediately make that point, and only 14 minutes later did she offer a caveat: “I cannot prove empirically that I would have won, but we’ll never know.”

At the NAN convention, Abrams even suggested the election was stolen: “So in response to what I believe was a stolen election — and I’m not saying they stole it from me, they stole it from the voters of Georgia.”

A few days later, on MSNBC, Abrams elaborated on the “stolen” theme. “I use the word ‘stolen.’ I’m not saying I absolutely know I would have won, but we know that thousands of Georgians had their voices stolen because they were not able to cast ballots, and they cannot be guaranteed that their votes will be counted in 2020 if we don’t do this right.”

At a town hall in Seattle that month, Abrams said her race “transformed the electorate of Georgia,” in part because of “presidential level” turnout. “The only definitive difference that we can find is that not every vote that was cast got counted and that every person eligible to vote was allowed to do so,” she said. “That means I can’t know for a fact that I would be the governor of Georgia but for the malfeasance and the mismanagement of Brian Kemp, but I know it’s a pretty good guess.”

Asked at the Chicago Humanities Festival on April 27 about the biggest lesson she learned from the election, Abrams said: “I still fundamentally believed it could be fair, and that’s just not how life works. If it looks like it’s cheating, it probably is. If it looks like it’s rigged, it probably is. That does not mean that you don’t try anyway, but I wasn’t prepared to lose in that way.”

In a New York Times Magazine article titled “Why Stacey Abrams is still saying she won,” published April 28, she once again said it was not a fair election and said she was comfortable using the word “won.”

“Now, I cannot say that everybody who tried to cast a ballot would’ve voted for me, but if you look at the totality of the information, it is sufficient to demonstrate that so many people were disenfranchised and disengaged by the very act of the person who won the election that I feel comfortable now saying, ‘I won,’” she told the Times. “My larger point is, look, I won because we transformed the electorate, we turned out people who had never voted, we outmatched every Democrat in Georgia history.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) questioned Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams’s past election comments during an April 2021 Senate Judiciary hearing on voting rights. (Video: C-Span)

Abrams continued to suggest the election was stolen through 2019 and even as recently as 2021.

“Brian Kemp won under the rules that were in place. What I object to are rules that permitted thousands of Georgia voters to be denied their participation in this election or to have their votes cast out,” she said, when questioned by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) before the Senate Judiciary Committee on April 20, 2021. “My full language was that it was stolen from the voters of Georgia. We do not know what they would have done, because not every eligible Georgian was permitted to participate fully in the election.”

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