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Stacey Abrams Calls Georgia's Primary Election 'An Unmitigated Disaster'

Jun 12, 2020
Originally published on June 13, 2020 5:25 pm

Former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams says the state's Tuesday primary performance was "an unmitigated disaster," pinning the blame on Georgia's Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

Polling locations all around Georgia experienced delays and long lines Tuesday due to a mix of logistical problems, technical issues with the state's new voting machines and COVID-19-related restrictions resulting in fewer available voting sites.

"The Constitution puts the obligation for the conduct of elections squarely in the hands of the secretary of state. On top of that, [Raffensperger] very vigorously pushed to purchase new machines that he insisted would be ready for roll out in the primary, at the cost of $107 million," Abrams told NPR Friday.

"He failed to adequately direct, train, and invest in the counties so they could do their work," she added.

Raffensperger, a Republican, is calling for an investigation into the polling delays in Fulton and DeKalb county, two areas in Georgia that have large minority and Democrat populations. Abrams disagrees with Raffensperger, arguing that Georgia saw problems throughout the state.

"Across the state, 20 counties led by Democrats and Republicans, in urban and rural and suburban areas, all experienced the same cataclysmic failures," she said.

Abrams became a vocal critic of voter suppression following her razor-thin loss to Brian Kemp in Georgia's 2018 governor race (losing by just over one percentage point.) The election saw high turnout while also recording significant voting problems. Abrams is the first African American woman to win a major party gubernatorial nomination nationwide.

Following the midterm elections, Abrams founded the organization, Fair Fight, that works to combat voter suppression. She published a new book in early June titled Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose and the Fight for a Fair America.

"The point of the book is to really layout in granular detail, but also with historical context, how voter suppression has gone beyond Jim Crow to these labyrinthine administrative rules that trip up anyone who doesn't have a law degree and a phalanx of lawyers at their side to help them get through the process if they are one of the intended targets," she said.

When asked if she believes voter restrictions are meant to limit the voices of people of color and Democrats, Abrams said "yes" — adding that the specific target varies on location but it can hurt people of color and naturalized immigrants as well as younger and poor Americans.

Looking ahead to the 2020 general election, Abrams stressed that her new book gives voters, "a playbook, and I think a prescription, for how we can make things better."

The former Georgia House minority leader also pushed back on the narrative that she has been campaigning to be former Vice President Joe Biden's running mate. Over the past several months, Abrams has been open about her willingness to take the job if asked.

"My responses over the last 14 months have been numbingly consistent, which is: 'Would you serve if asked?' Yes. 'Are you qualified to serve?' Yes. That's it. There is no campaign. There is no jockeying. There are simply the straightforward responses I give because as a black woman, I do not have either the luxury or the intention of pretending that I can't or I won't," Abrams said.

"I don't just speak for myself. I speak for anyone who looks like me, wants to become more and will find themselves blocked because someone years before said it wasn't possible. So I will never be the person who says it's not possible and I'll never be the one to say I can't," she added.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For months, the U.S. has been facing one crisis after another - the coronavirus pandemic, tens of millions of jobs lost in an effort to contain it and most recently a spasm of civil unrest brought on by police violence. On top of that, yet another crisis unfolded earlier this week - a state government shockingly unprepared for a long-planned primary election.

In Georgia on Tuesday, some citizens were forced to wait in line for hours to vote, some in drenching rain. And some didn't get to vote until after midnight - this coming only five months before national elections.

Stacey Abrams has been thinking about and organizing around the issue of voter access for years now, and she's written a new book about it. She ran for governor in Georgia and was the first black woman to win a major party primary for governor. She is widely believed to be under consideration for vice president on the Democratic ticket this fall. And she's with us now.

Stacey Abrams, thank you so much for joining us.

STACEY ABRAMS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: How would you describe what happened on election day in Georgia, your home state? And, frankly, who was responsible?

ABRAMS: I would describe it as an unmitigated disaster. And the accountability and responsibility and the authority rests squarely on the shoulders of the secretary of state.

MARTIN: Well, the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, is saying that local county officials did not prepare adequately; they didn't learn how to use the machines. I'll just read you from his statement.

(Reading) The secretary of state's office cannot administer elections. Every Georgia county is charged with that responsibility. But what is clear from yesterday is that while almost every county delivered successful elections, a couple did not.

And he goes on to say that he's going to ask the General Assembly to give the state greater authority to intervene and require management changes as well as to ask the counties themselves to pay for remedial action. How do you respond to that?

ABRAMS: I respond by saying that the Constitution puts the obligation for the conduct of elections squarely in the hands of the secretary of state. On top of that, he very vigorously pushed to purchase new machines that he insisted would be ready for rollout in the primary at the cost of $107 million, the single largest purchase of machines that we can find in the world. And he failed to adequately direct, train and invest in the counties so they could do their work.

MARTIN: You make the point in the book that there's a clear through line from the vulgar, violent voter suppression methods that people in your grandparents' era faced to things that you have criticized today, like requiring people to get photo IDs or closing or consolidating voting locations. Republicans scoff at that. I mean, they say you need to show an ID to get cough syrup, so why shouldn't you show one to vote? So why do you say that these kinds of strategies are aimed at keeping people from voting, particularly people of color?

ABRAMS: Voter ID has existed for as long as voting has existed. What has changed in the last 20 years is how restrictive the ID has become - how it filters out communities.

For example, because of restrictive voter ID in Wisconsin, a 100-year-old black woman who'd been able to vote in Wisconsin for decades, in 2016 was denied an identification that would have allowed her to vote because she could not produce a birth certificate. Well, she was born during Jim Crow segregation in Missouri and was not allowed to be born in a white hospital, so she was legally not allowed to have a birth certificate. And so that action was used to deny her the right to vote for the first time in decades.

When we talk about voter ID, we don't mean you don't have to prove who you are. What we mean is you shouldn't have to jump through so many hoops that do not increase security but certainly decrease access.

MARTIN: You point out accurately that most of these measures since the law change - or rather, since the Supreme Court allowed the law to change, requiring certain states to get preclearance for these kinds of actions - that mainly Republican legislatures have been extremely aggressive in pushing these changes. They say that it's a matter of voter integrity. They say that it's an effort to prevent, you know, fraud.

And obviously, critics like yourself profoundly disagree. But I'm going to ask you, what do you think is the primary motivation? Is it race? Is it a belief that certain people just aren't - shouldn't be voting? Or is it partisan politics? Is it people who tend to vote for a certain political party, people would just prefer that they not?

ABRAMS: Yes. And that's the important part of the book. These are all populations - people of color, the poor, young people, immigrants who are naturalized - they tend to vote more progressive because progress includes them.

But the other thing I'll point out is the notion of voter fraud. If you use the Heritage Foundation - I will give them their widely touted database of voter fraud. They have been able to account for - and I'll give them 1,300, although I think it's a little under that - 1,300 examples of putative voter fraud over the last 20 years. More than 625 million ballots have been cast in that time period.

There is absolutely no way that 1,300 votes impacted the outcome of elections to the degree necessary to strip millions of Americans of their right to vote. That is the problem with voter suppression. But it's also a larger conversation about what it means for our democracy when we are siphoning off both the will and the capacity of people to participate at a time when those populations are becoming the majority of our country.

MARTIN: So what do you think should happen now?

ABRAMS: So there's litigation, there's legislation, and there's advocacy. And what we need to be focused on are all three of those benchmarks. But what we also need to recognize is that voting is not an act in and of itself. It is the weapon or the power that we use to create the change we want.

MARTIN: I do have to ask you about the whole vice president thing. I'm sure you're sick of being asked about it...

ABRAMS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...And hearing about it. But the reality of it is, you've not been shy about saying that you would, if asked, be willing to serve. And you've given a number of reasons for that - because you want people, particularly young women and particularly people of color, to know that if you are qualified, you should be willing to serve. But you also said on Stephen Colbert's show the other night that you hadn't been contacted by Vice President Biden's campaign yet. And I want to know what you think that means.

ABRAMS: My responses over the last 14 months have been numbingly consistent, which is, would you serve if asked? Yes. Are you qualified to serve? Yes. That's it.

There is no campaign. There is no jockeying. They are simply the straightforward responses I give because as a black woman, I do not have either the luxury or the intention of pretending that I can't or I won't because, as you pointed out, I don't just speak for myself. I speak for anyone who looks like me, wants to become more and will find themselves blocked because someone years before said it wasn't possible. So I will never be the person who says it's not possible, and I'll never be the one to say I can't.

MARTIN: That is Stacey Abrams. She is a former Georgia Democratic gubernatorial candidate. She is the founder of Fair Fight Action. Her latest book, "Our Time," is now available. And she joined us from Atlanta, Ga., via Skype.

Stacey Abrams, thank you so much for joining us.

ABRAMS: Thank you.

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