Stacey Abrams: 'This is not a fight that’s going to be won in a single election'

Documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy traces the long history of voter suppression and follows the former Georgia gubernatorial candidate’s fight for fair elections

The two months between Labor Day and the US election in November are crunch time for Stacey Abrams. Two years ago, during the 2018 midterms, the Democratic candidate for governor of Georgia pressed to register and rally voters amid disturbing revelations about the fairness of the election. Two weeks before election day, an investigation found that the state of Georgia had improperly purged 340,000 people from voter registration rolls without notice; the man in charge of running a fair election, secretary of state Brian Kemp, had previously blocked 53,000 people – 80% of them black – from registering to vote due to minor discrepancies in their state records.

Kemp, a Republican and outspoken Trump loyalist, was also running against Abrams, who would have become the nation’s first black female governor, had she not lost by a razor-thin margin of about 55,000 votes.

Abrams never conceded the race due to the issues of voter suppression and a number of civil rights lawsuits still tied up in court. And now, as the clock closes in once again on a monumental, bitterly contested election, Abrams is focused on the democratic bedrock which arguably cost her the governorship, and whose shakiness could fundamentally undermine American government. In 2018, “so much attention was being paid to my campaign and my election that I think it eclipsed the larger issue,” she told the Guardian, “which is that voter suppression is happening across this country and regardless of who the target may be, the effect is that you break the machinery of democracy for everyone.”

In 2019, Abrams launched Fair Fight, a grassroots organization to expose voter suppression and advocate for free and fair elections. As explained by All In: The Fight For Democracy, an Amazon Prime documentary on the long arc of voting rights and suppression in the US, attempts to curtail the most institutional form of American democracy have proliferated in the last 20 years. Since the election of Barack Obama in 2008 and the 2013 supreme court ruling which defanged the 1965 Voting Rights Act, “voter suppression has taken on a much more aggressive and malevolent turn that we haven’t really seen since Jim Crow,” Abrams said.

All In, directed by Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus, splices Abrams’s 2018 campaign and her 2020 Fair Fight movement with a history lesson on America’s democratic promise long unfulfilled, tracing enfranchisement from its limit to white male property owners at the nation’s outset through Reconstruction, a brief window of black enfranchisement in which numerous black men were elected to Congress and state governments. But by the turn of the 20th century, southern states turned to the so-called “Mississippi Plan” to systematically deny minorities the right to vote by using the societal conditions imposed on African Americans, such as poverty and low literacy rates, as the preconditions for voting. Hence, poll taxes. Literacy tests rigged for failure. The permanent barring of felons, which disenfranchised African Americans targeted by draconian penal codes for everyday behavior, such as loitering in a street. Voter intimidation, harassment and violence. Jim Crow legislation ravaged the swift gains of Reconstruction and paralyzed the black electorate for nearly a century; by the 1950s, only 3% of age-eligible black people in the south were registered to vote.

Contemporary history is a “new reiteration of a long continuum”, Cortés told the Guardian. “When you look at the history of voting rights and voter suppression, you see it’s inherent in the DNA of our country.” In the past, it was “billy clubs and hoses; now it’s strict voter ID laws and purges and the intentional poll closures. They’re a part of the same power playbook.”

Abrams’s mission with All In is to reveal the same power playbook at work now in seemingly neutral laws made to look reasonable. Measures such as voter ID laws and mass clearings of voter rolls “sound intentionally benign to lull us into ignoring them”, she said. “But let’s be clear: we have voter ID laws from the inception of our country. You always had to say who you are and demonstrate it to cast a ballot. What’s different is how restrictive and how suppressive the type of ID can be.”


In the 2016 election, for example, 33 states had some form of voter identification measure, ostensibly to combat voter fraud but in practice targeting minority groups; black voter turnout plunged seven percentage points. North Dakota imposed a law requiring a street address to vote, which imperiled the rights of Native Americans living on reservations, who often do not have a fixed government-recognized address. In Texas, voter ID laws accepted a handgun license, but not the student ID for public universities often issued to young voters.

The insidious trajectory of voter suppression – how it morphs to meet the moment, how defenders deny charges of intentional racism based on vague language – is something Abrams, 46, knows well. Raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, Abrams was “steeped in not just the history of what voter suppression is, but I was raised to believe that when you see a problem, your job is to solve it”. Her parents, Methodist ministers, took her to the polls as a child and instilled the importance of the Voting Rights Act. Their legacy and lessons “equipped me for this moment”, she said. “I may not have become governor, but that does not absolve me of the responsibility to ensure that the voices of Americans get heard. I’m not entitled to history. And we aren’t entitled to our choice of winning at the ballot box. What we are entitled to is being heard.”

She’s excited about the partnership with Amazon Prime, she said, because she believes in “meeting people where they are. I also believe in telling them the truth about what they face.” That truth is that suppression tactics are on the rise, that some of the greatest enfranchisement progress of the civil rights era is at risk of being lost, if not lost already, a struggle further exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic. Case in point: the disastrous primary elections in Wisconsin and Georgia this spring, in which voters waited upwards of five hours at drastically restricted poll locations, especially in predominantly African American neighborhoods. It’s enough to make one despair, but All In “tries to combat the hopelessness by showing the progress”, said Abrams. “You can only make progress if you know where you are and where you’ve been.”

Stacey Abrams in ALL IN Courtesy of Amazon Studios

The week we spoke, police in Kenosha, Wisconsin, shot Jacob Blake, a black man, in the back as he tried to climb into his car. The current president undermined the post office and railed against non-existent, disproven voter fraud. Faith in mail-in voting has plunged. Given the mess of 2020, and the protracted, cyclical, uphill fight for voting rights, how does one hold on to hope? “This is not a fight that’s going to be won in a single election or even a single decade,” Abrams responded. “This has been a perennial challenge from the inception of our nation. My hope is drawn from the fact that we haven’t given in yet. After 240 years, I would be forgiven for just saying, never mind. But we are celebrating in this year the 150th anniversary of black men getting the right to vote through the 15th amendment, the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage, where white women got the right to vote. As a black woman, I may not have benefited immediately from either, but I am the product of the legacy of both. That is hope.”

Abrams derives hope, too, from the nationwide marches for Black Lives Matter this summer in response to the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. “There’s connective tissue between the protests we see in the streets and the action that has to be taken at the ballot box,” she said.

“In years past, the shooting of Jacob Blake would’ve been chalked up to one more shooting, and there would’ve been a sense of hopelessness – there’s no point in responding, there’s no point in protest,” she added. “What we see in protest is an activation of humanity that says that we deserve more. We deserve justice, we deserve answers.

“As unsettling and discomfiting as they may be, there is hope in the marginalized demanding to be seen, especially in an election.”

After the 2018 election and a bid for Biden’s vice-presidential nomination that ultimately went to Kamala Harris, Abrams remains mum on another run for political office. Looking forward, she’s focused on the fight to vote, ensuring an accurate 2020 census and battling the related scourge of gerrymandered representative districts. “I’m not saying I’m not running again,” she said, “but my focus now is to make sure that we have a democracy that I can run in.”

  • All In: The Fight for Democracy is now showing at cinemas in the US and will be available on Amazon from 18 September


Adrian Horton

The GuardianTramp

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