Stacey Abrams On The Continuing Fight For Voting Rights, Voter Access : Consider This from NPR The Supreme Court heard arguments this week about voting laws in Arizona that would make ballot access harder for people living in rural areas like the Navajo Nation. NPR's Nina Totenberg reports that the conservative court isn't likely to strike down the laws which could pave the way for more legislation that cuts into future election turnout.

The push for legislation that would restrict voter access comes primarily from Republican lawmakers in state houses across the country. This is despite the fact that many GOP candidates benefited from record turnout last November.

NPR's Ailsa Chang speaks with voting activist Stacey Abrams about her role in turning Georgia blue during the last election and the challenges that new legislation may pose for the future.

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Stacey Abrams On The Continuing Fight For Voter Access

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The Supreme Court heard arguments this week about whether two Republican-supported voting laws in Arizona are constitutional. One law requires that in-person Election Day voters cast their vote in their assigned precinct, and the other law prevents absentee ballots from being collected by anyone other than a voter's relative or caregiver.


TOM PEREZ: I don't think you can understand this case without understanding the geography of Arizona.

CHANG: Former Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez told NPR's Nina Totenberg that the law about absentee ballots will have a huge impact on Navajo Nation voters.


PEREZ: It's very remote. There is a lot of abject poverty. Some people have to travel an hour or two to get a mailbox. And so voting requires the active assistance of friends and neighbors.

CHANG: But the court's conservative majority is unlikely to strike down the laws. And its liberal justices have signaled that the conversation is much bigger than voter access in rural Arizona.


ELENA KAGAN: A state has long had two weeks of early voting.

CHANG: During Tuesday's hearing, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan posed some hypothetical scenarios to Republican lawyer Michael Carvin.


KAGAN: Then the state decides that it's going to get rid of Sunday voting on those two weeks. Black voters vote on Sunday 10 times more than white voters. Is that system equally open?

MICHAEL CARVIN: I would think it would be because Sunday is the day that we traditionally close government offices.

KAGAN: The state says we're going to have Election Day voting only, and it's going to be from 9 to 5.

CHANG: You see, what's really at stake is one of the major pillars of the 1965 Voting Rights Act that prevents states from discriminating against voters based on race. This ruling on Arizona laws could pave the way for other legislation that adversely impacts voters of color - legislation that's making its way through statehouses right now.

CONSIDER THIS - the 2020 election saw a record number of voters. But across the country, there are efforts underway that could lead to fewer Americans voting in the future. Coming up, voting rights activist Stacey Abrams on what the ongoing fight for voter access looks like in Georgia. From NPR, I'm Ailsa Chang. It's Wednesday, March 3.

It's CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, lawmakers in states throughout the country have proposed more than 250 bills aimed at tightening voting rules. That's including battleground states like Pennsylvania and Georgia.


MYRNA PEREZ: In a very discernible and disturbing pattern, we see many of the bills restricting mail voting.

CHANG: Myrna Perez is director of voting rights and elections at the Brennan Center.


PEREZ: We've seen bills that would introduce witness requirements, limit the use of drop boxes or increase poll watcher access of these ballots.

CHANG: Perez told NPR's Steve Inskeep that race clearly plays a role in much of these proposed voting laws.


PEREZ: What I think was really obvious and really upsetting about the 2020 election was that there was very little attempt to hide the racialized nature. I mean, where did we hear that there was impropriety happening? In very diverse cities, in places like Detroit, places like Atlanta.

STEVE INSKEEP: Philadelphia.

PEREZ: And what sort of attacks did we see? We saw attacks on methods of participation that had been used by older white voters for a very, very long time.

INSKEEP: What's a method that had been used successfully with no real trouble by older white voters that suddenly became...

PEREZ: Vote by mail.

CHANG: Many Republican politicians have blamed mail-in ballots in particular for Donald Trump's loss. Trump had falsely claimed that these mail-in ballots lead to fraud. Democrats used mail-in ballots more than Republicans did in swing states.


LINDSEY GRAHAM: Mail-in balloting is a nightmare for us. So if we don't fight back in 2020, we're never going to win again presidentially. A lot's at stake here.

CHANG: Republican Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina has been less than subtle about his concerns. He told Fox News on more than one occasion that mail-in voting - not just alleged voting fraud, but the mail-in votes themselves - pose a risk to his party.


GRAHAM: If we don't do something about voting by mail, we're going to lose the ability to elect a Republican in this country.


CHANG: The fact is, the Republican Party benefited from a huge voter turnout in 2020. I mean, sure, Biden won, but more than 74 million voters picked Trump. That's the second-highest vote count for a presidential candidate ever. And other GOP candidates outperformed polls up and down the ballot last November. In Congress, Republicans were forecast to lose seats in the House. Instead, they gained 14 seats.


CHARLIE SYKES: Rather than celebrate the massive voter turnout that we saw, they want to dial that back. So they're going to be pushing restrictions on mail-in voting. They're going to be pushing restrictions on voter ID to make sure that the wrong people don't vote again.

CHANG: Charlie Sykes is a conservative commentator who's been critical of Trump-era Republicans.


SYKES: When the idea of voter ID first came up, I thought it was simply a commonsense measure to assure voter integrity. I think in retrospect, you look back on it and this was part of a larger pattern of trying to keep the number of minorities, young people away from the ballot box.


CHANG: One of the biggest surprises in the 2020 election was Georgia. Historic voter turnout led to the state turning blue for Biden. That's the first time a Democratic candidate won there in three decades in a presidential election. And then in January, Georgia voters sent two Democrats to the U.S. Senate, which narrowly secured the party's majority in that chamber. One person central to this major shift is the voting rights activist and former state legislator Stacey Abrams.


STACEY ABRAMS: It comes somewhat like Lucy and the football (laughter) - pulling it away from Charlie Brown - and as one of the cheerleaders saying, Charlie Brown, we should kick again, Georgia. It was a remarkable thing to have it work.

CHANG: Last year, Abrams helped make a documentary about voter suppression, then and now. It's called "All In: The Fight For Democracy," and it's been shortlisted for an Oscar. I asked Abrams what had compelled her to make this movie.

ABRAMS: My 2018 campaign for governor was not successful. And in the time between the election day, November 6, and my non-concession speech on November 16, I really had to grapple with what happened. And I realized I had no right to victory. No politician has the right to win an election. But as a citizen, I have a right to my vote, and so did thousands of Georgians who were denied their franchise. But what really sat with me was the younger people who'd been so instrumental in transforming our electorate didn't really have the historical context for why voter suppression was not only so egregious now, but how it had a through line to the past.

CHANG: There are Republicans who are drawing a line between your refusal to concede in 2018 and former President Trump's refusal to concede in the several weeks following the 2020 election. And I want to play a bit of tape from our show last December. This is Georgia election official Gabe Sterling, a Republican, talking about the impact of Trump attacking the integrity of voting.


GABRIEL STERLING: This started in 2018 when Stacey Abrams said, I'm not conceding. I don't believe in the vote. It's being continued by President Trump in 2020, saying, I don't believe the vote. It's undermining people's faith in the democratic institutions that keep the republic sound. And all those institutions are there and need to be supported.

CHANG: So what do you say to people who do see parallels between your position on election integrity in 2018 and Trump's position in 2020?

ABRAMS: So let's start with a baseline. There's election integrity and then there's voter suppression. They are not the same thing. Voter suppression is whether or not every person who is eligible to participate in our elections has the ability to do so or whether they are prevented from doing so or discouraged from doing so by the state. It is absolutely incontrovertible that what I argued for was more people being permitted to participate in the process, which is the fundamental nature of democracy, and Trump and his allies fighting tooth and nail to deny the right to vote to millions of Americans.

CHANG: But are you at all concerned that vocalizing your concerns about election integrity eroded people's confidence in election integrity?

ABRAMS: I've never used that phrase because election integrity is the code word. It is the dog whistle that they use today to justify denying access to the right to vote. In fact, you find the very same people, including Gabe Sterling, arguing for further restrictions on access to the right to vote using this false narrative of election integrity. And in the wake of this false narrative, we are watching attempts to restrict the access to vote in the state of Georgia - 50 different bills that are doing nothing but trying to restrict access. And each time, their only justification is that people don't like the outcome of the 2020 election. They have no evidence. They have no data. They have no proof.

CHANG: Let's talk about some of those bills that you just mentioned. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there are more than 250 bills in 43 states that seek to tighten voting rules, including one that just passed in the Georgia House of Representatives. Supporters of the bill are saying that adding uniform Monday through Saturday voting times lessens confusion, while Democratic lawmakers say that that kind of bill discriminates against Black voters who mobilize on Sundays often. Do you agree with that assessment of these Democratic lawmakers, that this kind of bill directly holds back Black voters?

ABRAMS: So let's set some context for people who are thinking about Georgia because I think that's a perfect example. Georgia has 159 counties. The largest county has more than a million people. The smallest county has 2,500. And what has happened for the last 15 years is that we've allowed more to be done for places that are larger. And here's why this matters. In the 2020 general election, in 107 out of 159 counties, Black Georgians were more likely than white Georgians to vote on weekends instead of during the week. Under HB 531, this limitation of access to voting is going to disproportionately harm Black voters because they tend to live in larger counties, and they tend to live in higher-population communities. This is not about uniformity. This is about constriction of access because in those larger counties, more people turned out in 2020, and it changed the outcome of elections in ways that Republicans loathe to acknowledge and see repeated.

CHANG: I want to turn to the U.S. Supreme Court now because the Supreme Court has heard arguments in two Arizona cases that could further gut the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Let me just ask you, how worried are you that this current 6-3 conservative-majority court will help erode much of the work that you and other activists have done?

ABRAMS: I'm deeply concerned, and I am sadly steeled for that result. We know that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act has been the remaining pillar that has protected communities of color because what it says is that states and local governments are not permitted to pass laws that are discriminatory against people of color and their ability to vote.

The challenge that's raised by the erosion of Section 2 is that if you can pretend that the reason you are taking these actions is not connected to race, then you are permitted to eviscerate access. This matters because that's exactly what precipitated the 1965 Voting Rights Act. And if we eviscerate Section 2, we are returning to post-Reconstruction, Jim Crow-era laws. And this is not hyperbole. It is a direct through line, which is one of the reasons "All In: The Fight For Democracy" is so important because I need people to understand this isn't a new trick. This is the same trick that has been played time and again to deny access to the right to vote to voters who are considered undesirable by the party in power.

CHANG: And forgive me - I have to ask this question. I'm wondering, how does running an Oscars campaign compare with running for political office?


ABRAMS: It is a different universe that I'm in, being a part of this broader conversation. But I think what's so important about this documentary - we still have to have this conversation. This conversation is just as relevant post-2020 election because as you pointed out, 250-plus bills in 43 states are attempting to strip us of the right to vote. And this campaign allows me to do the work I love to do most, which is encourage Americans to own their franchise and fight for the right to vote.

CHANG: That's voting rights activist and former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives Stacey Abrams.

You're listening to CONSIDER THIS FROM NPR. I'm Ailsa Chang.

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