Stacey Abrams chooses building a national voter protection program over running for president in 2020
Stacey Abrams said Tuesday she decided that rather than joining the crowded field for the Democratic presidential nomination, she could better help her party in next year’s election by “making sure every eligible American who should cast a vote will be able to.”
Abrams, speaking at the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades in Las Vegas, announced a 20-state voter protection initiative, using her experience challenging voting laws during her gubernatorial campaign last year in Georgia, which included widespread irregularities.
“We’re going to have a fair fight in 2020 because my mission is to make certain that no one has to go through in 2020 what we went through in 2018,” Abrams said.
The initiative, called Fair Fight 2020, takes its name from the organization that the Georgia Democrat founded last year after narrowly losing her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor.
The effort, expected to cost between $4 million and $5 million, will target 20 states, most of them battlegrounds in the Midwest and Southeast, and three states with gubernatorial elections this year: Kentucky, Louisiana and Mississippi.
Abrams, 45, has said that she would run for office again, including a possible bid for president and a rematch with Brian Kemp (R) in 2022. Despite being heavily courted by national party leaders, she decided against challenging Sen. David Perdue (R), who is up for reelection next year.
By launching Fair Fight 2020, Abrams took herself out of the running for president, but she said she still is open to being considered as a running mate for the eventual nominee. “I would be honored to be considered,” she said.
At one point during her speech in Las Vegas, Abrams led the union members in a cheer: “Say it with me — fair fight! Fair fight! Fair fight!”
“I’m going to use energies and my very, very loud voice to raise the money we need to train [people] across the country in our 20 battleground states to make sure that Donald Trump and the Senate take a hike and we put people in place who know what we need,” Abrams said.
During her speech, she criticized states for enacting strict voter ID laws and for aggressively purging their voter rolls. She noted that Tennessee recently passed a law that makes it harder for churches and other community groups to conduct voter registration drives.
Abrams said part of the reason she had talked about running for president was to call attention to voting rights and to make the case that Georgia should be considered a battleground state. She said candidates are paying attention to Georgia and most have acknowledged that voter suppression is a serious concern that must be addressed.
In a telephone interview after her speech, Abrams said party leaders had welcomed Fair Fight. “Without exception I have received nothing but the highest degree of excitement and offers of support,” she said.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, chief executive of Fair Fight and Abrams’s former campaign manager, said Abrams wants to help Democrats be more prepared to respond to the kinds of widespread irregularities that characterized the Georgia gubernatorial race, including inaccurate voter rolls, shortages of voting machines and provisional ballots, and a lack of uniform rules for counting absentee ballots.
“Stacey Abrams and Fair Fight are uniquely situated to bring together the disparate parts of the Democratic Party around ensuring that we have the most robust, thoughtful voter protection operation in battleground states for 2020 — and that work has to start this year,” Groh-Wargo said.
Abrams formed Fair Fight after she ended her campaign but refused to concede to Kemp, whom she referred to as the “architect of voter suppression” in the state. While running for governor, Kemp refused to step down from his post as secretary of state and continued to oversee the election in which he was a candidate.
Fair Fight, along with other activist groups, filed a federal lawsuit against the state alleging that it had “grossly mismanaged” the 2018 election and violated the constitutional rights of voters, especially people of color. A judge ruled in May that the case could go forward.
The Georgia Democratic Party, which employs a full-time voter protection director, worked closely with the Abrams campaign during the gubernatorial election. The state party’s voter hotline received more than 80,000 calls from people who needed help voting or who wanted to report problems. The groups also took elections officials to court during and after the election to restore people to the voting rolls, to keep polling places open or to force officials to count ballots they said had been wrongly disqualified.
Fair Fight 2020 will use some of the lessons learned in those battles to help Democrats in other states prepare their voter protection programs.
In past election cycles, campaigns and state parties tended to wait until the start of general election campaigning to put together voter protection programs, which were often dismantled after elections. But with ongoing efforts by Republican state lawmakers to pass more restrictive voting laws, Groh-Wargo said, it was important that Democrats start working now to be ready to help voters navigate potential hurdles. Similarly, some states, such as Michigan and Nevada, have recently passed laws to expand access to voting, and party leaders and activists in those states need to make sure voters can take advantage of the changes.
Last month, Fair Fight dispatched staffers to the Detroit suburbs to talk with Democratic Party leaders about their voter protection program.
Sitting around a table in a union hall in Madison Heights, Fair Fight’s trio of 30-somethings talked elections law, data collection and communicating with voters and elections officials during two days of meetings. The team was collecting information to figure out how Fair Fight could best help party activists improve their operation.
Erica Peresman, the newly hired full-time voter protection director for the Michigan Democratic Party, said in an interview that the state recently expanded the ability of voters to use absentee ballots and that Fair Fight offered some ideas about how to make the most of the new feature.
“I’m excited because they have some great ideas about how to take voter protection to the next level,” she said. Peresman has been a voting rights advocate for nearly 20 years and was a leader in the group that successfully shepherded a ballot initiative that changed voting laws, such as allowing same-day registration.
Liza Conrad, Fair Fight’s voter protection director, said she and her team, which includes Jack DeLapp, director of campaigns and data analytics, and Vasu Abhiraman, senior legal and communications adviser, have found Democrats eager for their help.
“As our team has traveled the country, two things have stood out: first, Democrats and our allies want and need to strengthen their voter protection programs. They’re ready to do the work … to build a robust, data-driven operation that educates, engages, and protects voters statewide,” Conrad said via email. “Second, while everyone is ready to work, they didn’t have all the resources to start now — but, with Fair Fight 2020, they will.”
The majority of the program will be run by Fair Fight PAC. Depending on the campaign finance laws of individual states, Fair Fight will make direct cash donations or will help groups raise money to hire staff, set up voter hotlines and develop public information campaigns.
Abrams has become one of the party’s most popular leaders since her gubernatorial bid. Many of the Democratic presidential candidates, as well as people running for local and state offices have reached out to her for advice on her historic campaign — she won her primary by 53 percentage points, the first black woman to be a major-party gubernatorial nominee, and she came within less than 1.5 percentage points of winning the general election. Abrams focused on mobilizing a broad coalition of voters, including those who usually skip midterm elections, and garnered more votes than any Democrat running statewide in Georgia.
In addition to the political action committee, Fair Fight also has an operation focused on voter education and advocacy, as well as Fair Count, which will work to make sure people of color and those living in rural communities take part in next year’s census.
Next year is shaping up to be a fierce battle for the presidency, and Democrats should take nothing for granted, Groh-Wargo said. She recalled President Trump’s rhetoric during the 2016 election, in which he warned that “illegal voters” would try to “steal” it. She also noted that the 2020 election will be the first since the Republican National Committee was released from a federal consent decree that for more than three decades had limited its “ballot security” activities, including monitoring polling places to prevent voter fraud.
“I think we could see a new level of intimidation and intentional confusion,” she said. “The Democratic Party and those who care about free and fair elections need to be prepared. It’s really important that officials at all levels and that candidates and lawyers and volunteers are ready to help insure voters have good information so they can cast their votes and not be harassed or intimidated away from their constitutional right to vote.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the Georgia Democratic Party and the Abrams campaign both ran voter protection programs. The program was one operation, and the story has been corrected.