Is Georgia on your mind? Yesterday, we had the election that was postponed in March due to the pandemic. Perhaps we’re all now getting used to going to sleep on election night not knowing the outcome of important races. This morning here in Atlanta, I woke up to predictable headlines, like: Georgia primary voters suffer long lines and defunct machines, Georgia Secretary of State under investigation for voter suppression, Georgia offers cautionary tale for November.
Remember November? In just six months, the United States is not only going to conduct a referendum on the president’s performance, we’ll also be doing a status check on whether the nation’s elections are free and fair. Spoiler alert: they’re not. But you already know that.
You know that American democracy, both conceptually and in practice, suffers from increasingly poor health. People all across the nation have taken to the streets in protest against systemic racism. The COVID-19 pandemic that recently occupied 100% of the news cycle poses significant logistical challenges to a voting system that is already fragmentary, dysfunctional, often too slow to cure ballot problems, and sadly often too unaccountable to provide any proper voting remedies at all. Much of this nationwide crisis culminated on Georgia’s doorstep in the 2018 gubernatorial race, in which Stacey Abrams ultimately refused to concede to Governor* Brian Kemp. Atlantans often put the asterisk there to embed a constant reminder of the illegitimacy of Kemp’s current position.
That Georgia race became a lightning rod for national conversations about the security of American democracy and as a result, Abrams herself became the ultimate symbolic watchdog against the many-headed hydra of voter suppression. Her campaign was praised for being forward-looking in its effort to ensure a free and fair election, and equally notorious for its ongoing aggressive lawsuits to remedy ballot-related injustices. Instead of becoming Governor of Georgia, Abrams became founder of Fair Fight, which conducts massive voter education campaigns and pushes for substantive election reforms at both the national level and targeted against the worst offenders among states and municipalities.
On losing the 2018 race and founding Fair Fight she writes, “My temperament is low-drama and even-keel, and, to be honest, sustained anger always struck me as a weakness. A person loses focus or, worse, becomes defined by that emotion. But I was mad and I couldn’t shake it. […] By day six, I had decided to skip over acceptance and go straight to a new stage that I like to call plotting” (245).
All this has raised Abrams’ profile considerably. In place of the false humility most politicians in her shoes might resort to when commenting on their ambition for higher offices, Abrams has directly said that she one day hopes to be elected President and she is working steadily toward that goal. There has been occasional speculation that Biden, as the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee in the upcoming election, could or should announce Abrams as his running mate. Abrams has declined to run for one of Georgia’s two U.S. Senate seats, both of which will be up for grabs in the 2020 election. She also has the emotionally very tempting option of trying to take the Governor’s mansion back from Kemp in 2022.
Any politician in her currently very enviable position would publish a book. Put some American flags on the cover, tell endearing stories about the hardships of her young life and how she overcame them, outline her experience working toward policies that appeal to the Democratic base and moderate independents, and so on. Beyond the handful of romance novels she wrote, Abrams has published two political books and both have been bestsellers despite neither of them being traditional political memoir schlock.
Nine months before her 2018 race, she published Lead from the Outside: How to Build Your Future and Make Real Change, which is about where and how to best make space by being a minority leader. And now, with six months until probably the most important election of our lifetime, she’s published a guide to ending voter suppression, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose, and the Fight for a Fair America.
Abrams doesn’t write books about herself because Democrats needs to get over the idea that we will ever have a perfect candidate, a singular presidential option who will emerge as the savior of our political party. Ensuring free and fair elections is not about getting Abrams back into power, although to many of us, that will be tasty gravy. “I’m a good candidate,” she says, “but my point is: everyone running for office can try this at home” (215-216). Our Time Is Now is a textbook for ensuring free and fair elections because having your vote counted is plainly and simply the cornerstone of American democracy. An individual’s vote is the fountain from which all our collective hopes and goals for governance flow, so we must protect it.
In ten chapters, Abrams breaks down each barrier to a free and fair election. She gives specific examples from her own experience, backs them with objective data, offers concrete solutions, and successfully preempts the common objections against each needed reform. The opening chapter provides historical context tracing how voter suppression has been built into American politics since the founding of the nation, with a focus on Reconstruction and then the Voting Rights Act. The next three chapters analyze the ways that each part of the voting process gets suppressed—in the registration phase, in access during voting itself such as in the form of voter ID laws and poll closings or who can vote by mail, and in the process of counting ballots after an election.
The second half offers a playbook to address these three problem areas. We have to stay in the game even though it is rigged; we have to begin to make some dents in the challenges; eventually we’ll make enough dents that we’ll be in a position to change the system for good. Just as we must reject the myth of a savior candidate, we must reject the myth of the magical swing voter. The number of swing voters nationwide is quite small, perhaps a few hundred thousand of them in any given state, and much of their impact has been blunted by gerrymandering of voting districts. By contrast, the eligible non-voters in any given state number in the millions due to voter suppression tactics. This is one reason why the Census can save us. Abrams’ Fair Fight work has also spawned Fair Count, the arm of her organization devoted to ensuring every American is included in the Census because those numbers are the linchpin of how we allocate representation and funding at all levels of governance for the coming decade.
“The fear of these elected officials is a loss of power, grounded in an assortment of causes like racism, sexism, homophobia, religious intolerance, or an inchoate desire to keep the world as it was when they sat at the peak of influence. They forget that the bygone days of political tranquility never truly existed—the agitators simply hadn’t amassed sufficient power to be heard. But they are getting closer to it every day” (144-5).
This summer of 2020, seemingly every country on planet Earth is in a state of upheaval and everyone is chewing on a lot of food for thought. Racism and viral pandemics are not new, but at this moment, we are once against being asked to rise to their complex and universal challenge. The world is watching America closely, waiting to see if our democratic experiment can still thrive or if it will succumb to populist authoritarianism like so many republics that came before. These bedrock concerns about identity politics, public health, and government systems are deeply intertwined and cannot be solved overnight on Election Day. We are looking for the next best version of America; Abrams wrote the book on how to achieve it.