Against the backdrop of a months-long pandemic and weeks-long uprising against police violence, Tuesday’s Georgia election debacle felt comparably apocalyptic. ‘complete meltdown’ screamed a banner headline in the The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Social media was littered with photos of long lines, tales of broken voting machines, and complaints of citizens prevented from exercising their legal right.
I found myself wondering: Would the televised suppression galvanize action on voting access, even among white people, as police violence had hiked support for police “reform,” at minimum—because we could see it on television and Twitter? Or would it serve to discourage the mainly black and brown people denied access from even trying to vote in November, since, despite years of activism, we haven’t cleaned up our broken voting system, desecrating this sacred right?
Naturally, I turned for answers to the nation’s most prominent expert on the way Georgia disenfranchises its voters: 2018 gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who came within 57,000 votes of winning her race, and who many believe would have won without the voter suppression perfected by her GOP opponent, then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is now the governor. Abrams’s new book, Our Time Is Now: Power, Purpose and the Fight for a Fair America, is a personal look at the obstacles she faced—the AJC estimates that Kemp’s decision to close many polling places and move others cost as many as 85,000 Georgians their ability to cast a ballot, more than his margin of victory—as well as a guide to mobilizing the new American electorate nationwide in November and beyond, the goal of the groups she founded last year, Fair Fight Action and Fair Fight PAC.
While current Secretary of State Brad Raffensparger is blaming mismanagement by urban counties for last Tuesday’s election meltdown, Abrams notes that his and Kemp’s chicanery has begun to hurt white suburban voters too, as some of them also suffered endless lines and ballot screwups. A GOP official in suburban Cobb County has even called on Raffensparger to resign over the debacle. “I have no confidence in this system, nor the leaders that are behind it,” said retired Marine Col. Mike Boyce. “And in my world, in the military, when you lose confidence in somebody, you replace them.” So far, Boyce doesn’t have a lot of Republican company, but Abrams believes he should.
“I want to frame it this way: When you break the machinery of democracy for some, you break it for everyone, and that’s really what we saw.”
Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.
JW: Even you didn’t know how to fix that!
SA: I know a lot, and I know a lot of people, and I couldn’t get this solved. I could not solve the simple challenge of a sealed envelope. And that doesn’t account for the thousands of Georgians who never even received a ballot. Or take my parents, who registered to vote when they moved to Georgia. Before the election, I couldn’t find my father in the system, even though I had a photo of his registration card. The database was flawed; it had his birth date wrong. I knew who to call to get that changed, but imagine if you’re a first-time voter who is told you don’t exist, and who only has an hour off to go vote without losing your pay?
So there were database issues and absentee ballot issues, including sending, processing, and making sure that they are counted. In fact, there is an ongoing challenge to make sure all the absentee ballots are going to get counted in the state of Georgia. We are still counting ballots in some congressional races to see if there will need to be a runoff. Which is not necessarily a bad thing. But there are people whose ballots had problems, and won’t be counted unless they fix the problems—and the “cure” period [during which a voter can do that] is so short, and many weren’t even notified, so they can’t fix it. So we’re working on what the remedy could be there as well.
Then you have the incompetence writ large. The secretary of state insisted on purchasing machines that he knew were questionable at the time he made the decision. Fair Fight Action, our group, in cooperation with Freedom Works—yes, the Koch organization—we both lobbied against implementation of such a massive change in our election structure: Freedom Works because they didn’t like the cost, us because we didn’t like the process. Also: The increased costs to counties would come without increased state investment. Despite knowing that it was going to be problematic, the secretary of state deployed these machines to the counties, but the counties didn’t receive adequate training or investment to staff up. You had roughly 175 technicians available [to address problems with the machines] in a state that has upwards of 2,000 polling locations. He seems to fundamentally misunderstand his job or not care about his job.
The last time Georgia had a wholesale change in voting machines, 2002, that secretary of state made sure there was adequate training and staffing. They mailed instructions to every single voter. They were prepared for failure. Raffensperger didn’t prepare for any contingency. So 20 counties—Republican and Democrat, urban and rural, predominantly white and predominantly black—had to get court orders to extend their elections, by hours. People were not able to vote in a reasonable amount of time. That’s why it’s so critical that people understand secretaries of state have the responsibility to ensure that elections happen, and what is so frustrating and angering is that Brad Raffensperger has showed an indifference to the needs of voters. When called on this, he has disavowed any responsibility. And on top of that, this is a man who spent $400,000 in federal election resources to run advertisements about the new machines he purchased. He could have deployed that money to hire 1,600 poll workers, paid them $20 an hour for 12-hour shifts, including the 250 poll workers that Fulton County, the most populated county in the state, told them that they needed. But instead of poll workers, there was an ad: “Look at Brad Raffensperger: He bought a lot of stuff!”
JW: And so now he’s blaming the counties, and especially the urban counties, like Fulton and DeKalb, saying, “Oh, these Democratic counties are the problem, they’re the ones screwing it up for their voters…”
SA: Part of the reason you have a statewide official in charge of elections is that the quality of your democracy shouldn’t differ based on your ZIP Code. The reason the secretary of state in Georgia has the ability to purchase machines for every county—as opposed to what happens in Mississippi, where every county is on its own and does have to make do—Georgia said we’re going to make this a statewide obligation and we’re going to put a person in charge. But what’s happened with Raffensperger and before him Brian Kemp is a refusal to acknowledge the variance of need you have in counties like Fulton or DeKalb. But interestingly, he leaves out Gwinnett County, which is another one of the largest counties in Georgia that had to have extended hours—and Gwinnett is run by Republicans! He’s singling out the two majority-black counties that are run by Democrats and ignoring the majority-minority county that is run by Republicans. The same set of problems occurred. There is a benefit to be able to point fingers, but Raffensperger cannot abdicate that responsibility.
JW: The good news is, they seem to be a little bit afraid that they screwed up too publicly. A column in the Washington Examiner Friday said Republicans are worried that “Democrats could wield voting rights like a cudgel” in November. Let me just read you one line from a Republican operative in Atlanta: “It gives Democrats a rallying cry by painting GOP elected officials as backwoods racists to large swaths of independent-minded suburban voters. They skew younger and are often transplants. Thus, they would tend to be prone to vote against a ‘good ole boy’ system.” It made me laugh, but you’re making me realize some of those suburban voters were affected, too. They’re not just looking on at other counties’ problems.
SA: Absolutely! I mean, he’s right. No matter what your target, everybody has to use the machinery—and that’s the problem with trying to break democracy. It doesn’t necessarily just affect your target. [Since the Voting Rights Act], they can’t do anything that is clearly racially intended, and so they’ve had to manipulate the rules. But when you manipulate rules that apply to everyone, you’re going to affect more than the people you’re targeting, and that’s the consequence of what they’ve done.
JW: I learned so much from your book. One interesting thing I didn’t know is that Georgia’s former Secretary of State Karen Handel tried to implement the “exact match” system [purging voters whose names vary slightly in the registration database], but the Obama Justice Department stopped her. Once we lost Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, though, Brian Kemp was able to do it, and disenfranchise tens of thousands of voters that way.
SA: Right, he didn’t have to get it “pre-cleared” with the Justice Department.
JW: One point you make repeatedly, that I hadn’t really thought about this way, is the fact that the old forms of voter suppression were systemic, systemically excluding groups of people: black people, poor black people, rural black people. The new forms are also systemic, but they can seem personal. They put the onus on the individual: It’s your fault that you couldn’t vote because you didn’t include your middle initial when you registered. Or you didn’t sign your name clearly. Or you didn’t find out that your polling place had changed. Or maybe you didn’t vote for a while, so you got purged from the rolls. All those things put the burden on the individual voter—who may not even know what’s happening, or if you do, you can feel a kind of shame. I screwed up!
SA: With the Voting Rights Act, the United States decided that facially racist behaviors were no longer permitted. But facially neutral behaviors, if you could get them through, they could exist. And one of the ways we know that breaks down, these rules do not say: Black people who live in poor communities shall not be allowed to vote. What we see instead is the under-resourcing of their precincts, and these rules that say if you move, you have to change your address in a certain number of days. Most lawyers don’t know that rule. If you’re a Latino who’s had to move often, you might not remember the last address you used to register. You’re trying to feed your family, but because you didn’t commit to memory the litany of rules and regulations, when you try to exercise your right to vote, you are shamed out of the process.
It’s all about what you didn’t do. And in the United States, we’ve taken this for granted, we’ve never questioned: Why would that be the responsibility, of every person, to know all the rules—especially if you cross a state line, and the rules are now completely different? In almost every other industrial democracy, these rules don’t exist. This was designed to push people out of the system. And it works. And this is why voter suppression in the 21st century is so insidious. It’s all about “I made a mistake, I didn’t know, I should have done,” instead of “This is absurd and why is it my job?”
JW: Speaking of jobs: You are frequently mentioned as a possible running mate for Joe Biden. But you told Stephen Colbert the other night that you have not been contacted by the Biden people in their vice presidential search?
SA: That is not what I said. Watch the segment.
JW: I’m sorry: That was the headline.
SA: I know it was, but watch the segment. What I responded to was a question about whether I had heard from the people who had spoken to April Ryan. Since I don’t know who April is speaking to, I answered a very specific question. The Biden campaign is going to run its process—it’s going to run its vetting; it’s going to pick a vice presidential nominee—and I don’t comment on that process!