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Stacey Abrams On Why Securing Voting Rights Is As Necessary Now As In The Past

Mar 2, 2021

For the first time in nearly three decades, the state of Georgia voted to put a Democrat in the White House. Then it added two U.S. senators from the Democratic Party. And one person central to turning Georgia blue is the voting rights activist and former state legislator Stacey Abrams.

Abrams tells All Things Considered that the Democratic swing was "extraordinary," but "not wholly surprising," adding that the "numbers had been moving in our favor" in recent years.

The 2020 election had historic turnout, but for Abrams, the fight to secure voting rights is just beginning. On Monday, the Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation that would restrict early and absentee voting. And 42 other states are also considering bills that would make it harder to vote.

Last year, Abrams helped to make a documentary about voter suppression, in the past and present. Now, All In: The Fight for Democracy has been shortlisted for an Oscar.

Here are excerpts from the interview.

According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are more than 250 bills in 43 states that seek to tighten voting rules, including the one that just passed in the Georgia House of Representatives. Supporters of the bill are saying that adding uniform Monday through Saturday voting times lessens confusion, while Democratic lawmakers say that that kind of bill discriminates against Black voters who mobilize on Sundays often. Do you agree with that assessment of these Democratic lawmakers that this kind of bill directly holds back Black voters?

Georgia has 159 counties. The largest county has more than a million people, the smallest county has 2,500, and what has happened for the last 15 years is that we've allowed more to be done for places that are larger. And here's why this matters. In the 2020 general election, in 107 out of 159 counties, Black Georgians were more likely than white Georgians to vote on weekends instead of during the week.

Under [the Georgia legislation], this limitation of access to voting is going to disproportionately harm Black voters because they tend to live in larger counties and they tend to live in higher population communities.

This is not about uniformity. This is about constriction of access because in those larger counties, more people turned out in 2020 and it changed the outcome of elections in ways that Republicans loathe to acknowledge and see repeated.

[On Tuesday] the Supreme Court has heard arguments in two Arizona cases that could further gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act. How worried are you that this current 6-3 conservative majority court will help erode much of the work that you and other activists have done?

I'm deeply concerned and I am sadly steeled for that result. We know that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been the remaining pillar that has protected communities of color, because what it says is that states and local governments are not permitted to pass laws that are discriminatory against people of color in their ability to vote. The challenge that's raised by the erosion of Section 2 is that if you can pretend that the reason you are taking these actions is not connected to race, then you are permitted to eviscerate access.

This matters because that's exactly what precipitated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And if we eviscerate Section 2, we are returning to post-Reconstruction Jim Crow-era laws. And this is not hyperbole. It is a direct through line, which is one of the reasons All In: The Fight for Democracy is so important, because I need people to understand this isn't a new trick. This is the same trick that has been played time and again to deny access to the right to vote to voters who are considered undesirable by the party in power.

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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

For the first time in nearly three decades, the state of Georgia voted to put a Democrat in the White House. Then it added two U.S. senators from the Democratic Party. And one person central to turning Georgia blue is the voting rights activist and former state legislator Stacey Abrams. She told us these results were not entirely unexpected but still extraordinary given Georgia's history.

STACEY ABRAMS: It becomes somewhat like Lucy and the football (laughter) - pulling it away from Charlie Brown - and as one of the cheerleaders saying, Charlie Brown, we should kick again, Georgia. It was a remarkable thing to have it work.

CHANG: The 2020 election had historic turnout, but Stacey Abrams' fight is just beginning. Yesterday, the Georgia House of Representatives passed legislation that would restrict early and absentee voting. And 42 other states are also considering bills that would make it harder to vote. Last year, Abrams helped to make a documentary about voter suppression, then and now. It's called "All In: The Fight For Democracy," and it's been shortlisted for an Oscar. I asked Abrams what had compelled her to make this movie.

ABRAMS: My 2018 campaign for governor was not successful. And in the time between the election day, November 6, and my non-concession speech on November 16, I really had to grapple with what happened. And I realized I had no right to victory. No politician has the right to win an election. But as a citizen, I have a right to my vote, and so did thousands of Georgians who were denied their franchise. But what really sat with me was the younger people who'd been so instrumental in transforming our electorate didn't really have the historical context for why voter suppression was not only so egregious now, but how it had a through line to the past.

CHANG: There are Republicans who are drawing a line between your refusal to concede in 2018 and former President Trump's refusal to concede in the several weeks following the 2020 election. And I want to play a bit of tape from our show last December. This is Georgia election official Gabe Sterling, a Republican, talking about the impact of Trump attacking the integrity of voting.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GABRIEL STERLING: This started in 2018 when Stacey Abrams said, I'm not conceding. I don't believe in the vote. It's being continued by President Trump in 2020, saying, I don't believe the vote. It's undermining people's faith in the democratic institutions that keep the republic sound. And all those institutions are there and need to be supported.

CHANG: So what do you say to people who do see parallels between your position on election integrity in 2018 and Trump's position in 2020?

ABRAMS: So let's start with a baseline. There's election integrity and then there's voter suppression. They are not the same thing. Voter suppression is whether or not every person who is eligible to participate in our elections has the ability to do so or whether they are prevented from doing so or discouraged from doing so by the state. It is absolutely incontrovertible that what I argued for was more people being permitted to participate in the process, which is the fundamental nature of democracy, and Trump and his allies fighting tooth and nail to deny the right to vote to millions of Americans.

CHANG: But are you at all concerned that vocalizing your concerns about election integrity eroded people's confidence in election integrity?

ABRAMS: I've never used that phrase because election integrity is the code word. It is the dog whistle that they use today to justify denying access to the right to vote. In fact, you find the very same people, including Gabe Sterling, arguing for further restrictions on access to the right to vote using this false narrative of election integrity. And in the wake of this false narrative, we are watching attempts to restrict the access to vote in the state of Georgia - 50 different bills that are doing nothing but trying to restrict access. And each time, their only justification is that people don't like the outcome of the 2020 election. They have no evidence. They have no data. They have no proof.

CHANG: Let's talk about some of those bills that you just mentioned. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are more than 250 bills in 43 states that seek to tighten voting rules, including one that just passed in the Georgia House of Representatives. Supporters of the bill are saying that adding uniform Monday through Saturday voting times lessens confusion, while Democratic lawmakers say that that kind of bill discriminates against Black voters who mobilize on Sundays often. Do you agree with that assessment of these Democratic lawmakers, that this kind of bill directly holds back Black voters?

ABRAMS: So let's set some context for people who are thinking about Georgia because I think that's a perfect example. Georgia has 159 counties. The largest county has more than a million people. The smallest county has 2,500. And what has happened for the last 15 years is that we've allowed more to be done for places that are larger. And here's why this matters. In the 2020 general election, in 107 out of 159 counties, Black Georgians were more likely than white Georgians to vote on weekends instead of during the week. Under HB 531, this limitation of access to voting is going to disproportionately harm Black voters because they tend to live in larger counties, and they tend to live in higher-population communities. This is not about uniformity. This is about constriction of access because in those larger counties, more people turned out in 2020, and it changed the outcome of elections in ways that Republicans loathe to acknowledge and see repeated.

CHANG: I want to turn to the U.S. Supreme Court now because, today, the Supreme Court has heard arguments in two Arizona cases that could further gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Let me just ask you, how worried are you that this current 6-3 conservative-majority court will help erode much of the work that you and other activists have done?

ABRAMS: I'm deeply concerned, and I am sadly steeled for that result. We know that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been the remaining pillar that has protected communities of color because what it says is that states and local governments are not permitted to pass laws that are discriminatory against people of color and their ability to vote.

The challenge that's raised by the erosion of Section 2 is that if you can pretend that the reason you are taking these actions is not connected to race, then you are permitted to eviscerate access. This matters because that's exactly what precipitated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And if we eviscerate Section 2, we are returning to post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow-era laws. And this is not hyperbole. It is a direct through line, which is one of the reasons "All In: The Fight For Democracy" is so important - because I need people to understand this isn't a new trick. This is the same trick that has been played time and again to deny access to the right to vote to voters who are considered undesirable by the party in power.

CHANG: And forgive me - I have to ask this question. I'm wondering, how does running an Oscars campaign compare with running for political office?

(LAUGHTER)

ABRAMS: It is a different universe that I'm in, being a part of this broader conversation. But I think what's so important about this documentary - we still have to have this conversation. This conversation is just as relevant post-2020 election because as you pointed out, 250-plus bills in 43 states are attempting to strip us of the right to vote. And this campaign allows me to do the work I love to do most, which is encourage Americans to own their franchise and fight for the right to vote.

CHANG: Stacey Abrams, voting rights activist and former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, thank you very much for speaking with us today.

ABRAMS: Ailsa, this has been a delight. Thank you so much.

(SOUNDBITE OF JON HOPKINS' "LOST IN THOUGHT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.