Stacey Abrams Spearheads Campaign Against Alleged Voter Suppression
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
After the chaos of the Iowa caucuses, there is new scrutiny about how the U.S. conducts elections. One new partisan voting rights group is focusing on elections in swing states this year. It's called Fair Fight, and it's led by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams. Abrams got a lot of national attention in 2018 after she lost a close race for governor in an election that was clouded by allegations of voter suppression. Here's NPR's Debbie Elliott.
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, BYLINE: A few dozen volunteers are spending a Saturday morning in a hotel conference room in Macon, Ga., for a boot camp of sorts on voter suppression.
HILLARY HOLLEY: Good morning.
UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: Good morning.
HOLLEY: Good morning, everybody.
ELLIOTT: Hillary Holley is organizing director for Fair Fight Action, the group that's waging a campaign against voter suppression in the 2020 election.
HOLLEY: We are walking into a year that's going to be exciting, a little bit stressful. We're going to be working a lot.
ELLIOTT: Participants call themselves democracy warriors, people like poll worker Elaine Morgan Johnson (ph) of Macon.
ELAINE MORGAN JOHNSON: Every single vote counts.
ELLIOTT: Johnson is motivated to be here in part because her sister was removed from Georgia's voter rolls under a mass purge of people who have not voted since 2012 or responded to mailed notices from election officials. Johnson thinks it's part of a broader strategy to curtail voting rights.
JOHNSON: Reducing their opposition - don't want to lose power. I mean, we're seeing that nationwide. It's depressing. And that's why I'm just trying to be active in any way that I can, you know. My parents worked for civil rights, and we're not for going backwards.
ELLIOTT: This training is part of an effort launched by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, an African American woman who broke new ground in her 2018 campaign for governor. She energized new Democratic voters and lost by less than 55,000 votes in a largely Republican state. There was record turnout for a midterm election, but also hours-long waits at some polls, election server security breaches and allegations that strict adherence on signature matches dampened participation. Abrams says the defeat galvanized her to launch Fair Fight.
STACEY ABRAMS: In the wake of the election, my mission was to figure out what work could I do even if I didn't have the title of governor? What work could I do to enhance and protect our democracy? Because voting rights is the pinnacle power in our country.
ELLIOTT: Fair Fight is training grassroots advocates, lobbying for new election laws and arguing in federal court that Georgia's election system is unconstitutional. Abrams says long lines, precinct closures and purging voter rolls are all barriers that disproportionately impact minority voters.
ABRAMS: Most of us understand voter suppression as the 1960s images of billy clubs and hoses and dogs barking, aggressive interference. But in the 21st century, voter suppression looks like administrative errors. It looks like user error. It looks like mistakes, but it is just as intentional and just as insidious.
ELLIOTT: Georgia's current secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, acknowledges there were some problems because of the high turnout in 2018, but rejects the notion that cleaning up voter rolls is an attempt to gain partisan advantage.
BRAD RAFFENSPERGER: No. What we're trying to do is make sure that the, you know, elections are clean, fair and accurate. This is something that has been going on in Georgia long before Republicans were in charge in Georgia.
ELLIOTT: And courts have upheld the state's authority to purge the voter lists after Fair Fight sued. But other election-related lawsuits are pending. Attorney Jake Evans is chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
JAKE EVANS: Georgia is ground zero for election law.
ELLIOTT: Evans says the focus is here because Georgia is becoming competitive.
EVANS: The reality is, you know, Georgia is changing. And there's a lot of transplants coming in from the West Coast and the northeast. And there's also a changing demographic. So I think it is time for Republicans to grow the tent. But I definitely think it's woke up a lot of Republicans in Georgia.
ELLIOTT: Now Abrams is expanding Fair Fight's reach in hopes of putting other states in play. She recently traveled to Florida for a town hall with college students to talk about ways they could protect their vote, from verifying voter registration to learning how to ask for a provisional ballot if you're turned away at the polls.
Political scientist Andra Gillespie of Emory University says there are a lot of national groups doing voting rights work. But Fair Fight stands out because it's been able to use the energy around Abrams' electoral defeat to try to reap benefits for other Democrats in this election cycle.
ANDRA GILLESPIE: Her story was compelling. She got a lot of attention by being the first black woman to be nominated by a major party for a gubernatorial seat. And she was really smart and, you know, struck while the iron was hot in order to put that type of organization together.
ELLIOTT: Fair Fight's political action committee is raising millions of dollars, including a $5 million contribution from Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg. And it's pumping some of that money into battleground states early. Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo says the idea is to beef up the Democratic ground game around voting.
LAUREN GROH-WARGO: We're in the mission of making sure our full citizenry can vote. We also happen to think that when all Americans are able to vote, Democrats win.
ELLIOTT: She says they've invested more than a million dollars and sent dozens of staffers into 18 states to ramp up Democratic voting rights infrastructure, things like establishing voter hotlines and creating voter protection teams to be in place for the primaries so they can prepare for the general election.
GROH-WARGO: Gathering information and data - what did voters struggle with? What did election administrators struggle with? What support are they going to need?
ELLIOTT: Critics say Fair Fight is a vehicle for Stacey Abrams' political aspirations. Abrams counters that she's been doing civil rights work her entire career, but acknowledges her interest in higher office, including the presidency.
ABRAMS: I see myself as a warrior for democracy, but I'm also someone who has been training my entire life to do more.
ELLIOTT: As for this year's race, Abrams hasn't endorsed any of the Democratic presidential candidates, but says she'll welcome a phone call from the eventual nominee when they're looking for a running mate. Debbie Elliott, NPR News, Atlanta.
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