January 11, 2019

Stacey Abrams

This week on Firing Line, Stacey Abrams discusses her narrow defeat in Georgia, why she refused to concede and her next election.

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The politician who refused to concede even as she ended her campaign, this week on ‘Firing Line.’
Amidst allegations of voter suppression in Georgia, Democrat Stacey Abrams was defiant after she narrowly lost her bid to become the nation’s first black female governor.

I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right.

Now she’s taking her fight to court.
To her supporters, she’s a hero for voters left behind, to her critics, a sore loser.
What does Stacey Abrams say now?

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Stacey Abrams, welcome to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you for having me.

You have just completed a run for governor of a historically, at least in recent terms, historically red state, where a Democrat has not held that office in decades.
What is it that made you think that there would be a pathway to victory for you?

I have been a member of the General Assembly for 11 years.
I became the Democratic leader of the House Caucus in 2010, and my first legislative session was a redistricting session.
And what I learned from the numbers really reflected the fact that Georgia was changing fairly dramatically and very quickly.
And I could see that there was a pathway for Democrats to surge and to start to reclaim more power in the state.
I believe that we are a purple state.
I like to say we’re blue and just a little confused.
But the notion being that, as we continue to change demographically, our politics are gonna keep changing.
And 2018, for me, was the year to test that out and to really encourage people to speak up, especially communities that had largely been absent from politics for the last 15 to 20 years.

Your campaign garnered national attention because your critics and your supporters all acknowledged that you turned the rules of politics upside down in the South.
I mean, you really almost won.
You were so close.
You had hoped and thought that, instead of sitting here, you would be the sitting governor of Georgia today, and I wonder, just in general terms, if you feel that it was stolen from you.

I think it was stolen from Georgians.
I believe that no one can know what would’ve happened.
And the reality is, voter suppression is an exact tool.
And I believe that we did not have a fair fight.

On the day before election day, your opponent, who is now the governor, Brian Kemp, tweeted out a picture of members of the New Black Panther Party holding guns and a Stacey Abrams sign.

Mm-hmm.

And the tweet read, ‘Retweet if you think Abrams is too extreme for Georgia.’
Do you think the sitting governor of Georgia is racist?

I believe his actions are racist.
I believe he has taken positions that demonstrate an animus towards communities of color, and not simply African-Americans, but he has echoed racist sentiments.
I knew Brian Kemp before he was the governor-elect, and I will tell you that there was a time I would’ve considered him someone that I could trust and talk to about issues.
We weren’t friends, but we got along well, we had each other’s cellphone numbers.
I was deeply disturbed by the tenor of his race, because it was not consistent with the person I had known a decade before.

Do you think that kind of tone and tenor helped him?

Yes, absolutely.

Does that mean that Georgians are racist?

No, and I think it’s important to understand that there are certainly people who make decisions based on race.
There are people who make decisions based on ideology.
For some, they cannot get to a clear ideology because of their animus based on race.
I can’t speak to his heart, but I can speak to his behavior.
My point is, we cannot have a leader who does not respect and demonstrate actively the respect for every person in the community, particularly when race is such a huge part of who we are as Americans, especially in the South.

One of the things that was so remarkable about your campaign is that, in an off-year election cycle, no president at the top of the ticket, 3.
9 million people, almost 4 million people voted in Georgia.
It was a really historic turnout.
And yet, on election night, you fell short 55,000 votes.

Mm-hmm.

Can you explain to viewers, what was it about those 55,000 votes that made you choose not to concede on election night?

One, we knew that every vote had not been counted.
We were receiving thousands of phone calls to a voter protection hot line that we set up.
And, in fact, over the next 10 days, it received more than 40,000 calls.
We knew that people were standing in three- and four-hour lines to cast a vote, that people were turned away from the polls, that absentee ballots had never arrived, or the ones you should be able to track were never counted.
I didn’t know that counting the votes would actually work in my favor, but I knew that my race was not simply about my election, it was about telling people who never engaged in the body politic that their votes would count and their voices would count, and it was my responsibility to not let this contest end until every person could believe that it was true, because failure to do that meant that these folks would suddenly stop voting.
They would believe that it is a rigged system and there was no reason to participate.

Even though you lost by 55,000 votes, what you really needed to do was find 18,000 votes, because that would’ve triggered a runoff between you and Brian Kemp.

In Georgia, our runoff system says you have to receive 50% plus 1 of the vote in order to be declared the victor without a runoff.
We knew, based on the calls that came in on election day alone that thousands of votes were either not counted or people had been given provisional ballots, and that means you voted, but it may or may not count.
And this wasn’t just hurting Democrats.
It was hurting Democrats and Republicans.
We were getting calls from all over the state, including counties where I know there were no Democrats.

Right.

And so, for us, it was, yes, counting every vote may not yield a victory for me, but it was a necessity for the state.

But did you believe that there was a real possibility of enough electoral malfeasance that it could’ve triggered — you could’ve gotten those 18,000 votes to trigger a runoff.

Not only do I believe it, but we have seen since that time that investigative reporting has demonstrated 7,000 absentee ballots being questionably rejected.
You can’t count every vote if you don’t know that every process was actually followed.

Okay.
So, 10 days later, you gave a speech where you acknowledged that Brian Kemp would become the next governor, but you did not concede.
And I’m gonna play a portion of that.

So let’s be clear.
This is not a speech of concession.
Because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true, or proper.
As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that.
But my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy.

You also said in that speech the democracy failed Georgia.

Yes.

Do you still believe that?

I do.

Your supporters have widely praised this speech.
There is one headline that read, ‘Stacey Abrams’ concession speech is a powerful critique of U.S. civil rights.’
And your critics have widely condemned it.
One headline read, ‘Contemptible.
Abrams was trying to rob her opponent of legitimacy.’
Here’s my question for you.
By refusing to concede, do you, in any way, risk establishing a dangerous precedent, that moving forward allows people to question the validity and legitimacy of the democratic process?

I would say this.
I believe that when the process is fair and proper and there are no questions, then we should absolutely expect a fair and just result.
In my case, the arbiter of the process was also the contestant.

Your opponent, Brian Kemp, he was the Secretary of State.
That had happened before.
Secretaries of State had also run for governor.

But none had ever been the candidate in the general election.

In the 2000s, there was a Democratic Secretary of State who ran for governor.

But lost the primary.
No one had ever been in the general election.

And do you believe that that disqualified him in some way?

I believe that it is deeply problematic that the Secretary of State also serves as the candidate.
The illegitimacy of this election is grounded in the fact that there was misinformation, misfeasance, malfeasance, and incompetence, and that does erode our democracy.
I believe that if it’s a fair and level playing field, you can lose.
I will lose.
But I believe the field has to be made level for Democrats and Republicans.

What you have, though, is some people who are concerned about a refusal to validate election results as a precedent.
And when you look back at 2016, then candidate Trump said at an Ohio rally, ‘I will totally accept the results of this great and historic presidential election if I win.’
Right?
And so — And then he spent a lot of time casting doubt and calling the election rigged if he would’ve lost and casting doubt on the electoral process and the legitimacy of the democratic process.
How do you make the case that you’re not doing the same thing?
First, throughout the process, when people did say it was rigged, when every action taken by the Secretary of State seemed to position him and disadvantage me.
I pushed back on those who would say that he was stealing the election.
I refused to let that be the narrative.
And if you look at everything I said, everything I pushed my supporters to say, we were not gonna delegitimize the process because I needed people to engage.
That’s part of how our democracy works.
It works when we work for it.
And then, when I made my speech, I was very careful to walk through what my concerns were and what the remedies are, because I think calling something rigged without evidence but also without antidote is problematic.
And then, to top it off, I filed a 64-page lawsuit that details in excruciating complexity what happened and why we are concerned.
And so, yes, throwing off accusations simply because you’re mad or having a temper tantrum is wrong, and it should not be permitted.
But when you know that wrong has happened and you know that others would stand to be harmed by it, it is not only un-American, it is absolutely morally wrong to allow that to stand, and that’s something I cannot do.

A counter example to the concession or to the norms is 1960, when Richard Nixon lost to John F. Kennedy in a presidential election that was of historically close margins.
And Nixon was convinced that the vote was stolen from him in both Illinois and in Texas.
And he decided that for the good of the country, the right thing to do is to honor the norms and to concede.
And then, he ran again later.
Why was conceding not the right thing for you to do?

As I said in my speech, concession means to say that the process was right and proper.
And what I wanted to do was acknowledge that the norms that have largely guided our democratic process in America and certainly in Georgia, I believe, have been fractured to an extent that they no longer actually serve as norms.
And it would be improper for me to say that they do, especially as people are watching in real time their ability to participate in the process was denied.
When people stand in four-hour lines, when there are no machines in their precincts, when they are told, ‘There’s not enough paper to give you a ballot,’ that is not legitimate.
And so what I tried to do is to thread an important needle that I think Nixon tried to acknowledge, which is that I wasn’t going to diminish the reality of this election and the contest itself, but I was not going to say that the way it was done was so correct and proper that there should be no questions and, more importantly, no fixes to it.

But you understand that there’s this nuance or this tension between supporting the democratic process and delegitimizing the democratic process.

Absolutely.
But our nation is about nuance.
We’ve consistently had to navigate the complexity of who we are.
And, in fact, every single iteration of expansion of the franchise has come about because we’ve had to determine where that tension would give and where it would be held taut.
I could’ve filed a contest.
The law of Georgia would have allowed me to contest the actual results of the election.
It would’ve allowed me to say, ‘This isn’t fair.
We’re gonna keep fighting it out in court.’
I did not do that because I believed it would be a scheme on my part when I knew that the results would not bear it out for my results.

You mean, you didn’t think you’d get the votes?

No, no, no.
I didn’t know that I had sufficient information —
So if you had had a real indication that the votes were there —
No, if I had known that the results would’ve changed for me.
So, here’s my point.
I could’ve kept fighting and continued the process, but I did not know one way or the other.
Because the problem was, this was a systemic activity.
It is not as though I said, ‘I’m gonna keep fighting until I get what I want.
I said I’m gonna keep fighting until we have trust in our system again.
And that’s very different.
I don’t benefit from it.
There’s no universe in which, at the end of our case, Brian Kemp is deposed, and I’m installed.
Can’t happen.
And that was a remedy I could’ve sought.
I didn’t.

So, let’s talk about Fair Fight Action.
So Fair Fight Action is a social-welfare organization that is, along with others, suing the process and governor, electoral officials in the state of Georgia in federal district court.

Yes.

And you said it’s 64 pages.
Read every single one of them.
And it really details a very extensive list of alleged electoral transgressions.
There are two items in it in particular that I’d like to go through with you.
One is this thing called exact match.

Yes.

Can you explain for the audience what exact match was?

Under Georgia law, the application submitted and processed by the registrar has to exactly match either the Department of Motor Vehicles, which we call DDS in Georgia, or has to match the Social Security Administration.
If anyone’s ever seen their Social Security card, we know that these are not always documents that directly reflect everything.
So, for example, in Georgia, the Department of Motor Vehicles does not allow spaces in last names.
So if your last name is Del Rios, it compresses into seven characters.
But on your Social Security card, it will say D-E-L space Rios.
That mismatch means that you do not get processed.
But when they send you the letter, they do not tell you that that’s the problem.
So the only remedy is that you resubmit your exact application, and you don’t know that the flaw is a system you can’t solve.

The other one I’d like to talk about is ‘use it or lose it.’

Mm-hmm.

Because ‘use it or lose it’ was a law that was actually passed in Georgia overwhelmingly by Democrats in 1997.
Can you tell me what’s wrong with that law?

I believe that Democrats and Republicans make mistakes, and part of my leadership in the House was to try to right wrongs that had been made wrong by Democrats.
But here’s the challenge.

First, tell me what the law is, what ‘use it or lose it’ means.

So, ‘use it or lose it’ says that if you don’t vote in a certain number of successive elections, then you can be struck from the roll, meaning you are de-registered.
And you have to register again to be permitted to vote.
And because Georgia’s registration laws do not allow for same-day registration, you may have been purged from the rolls and not find out until you go to cast your ballot in a certain election.
And the problem there is that, first of all, it’s fundamentally un-American to tell someone you have to vote.
We do not have a mandatory voting law in America the way they have in Australia.

Right.

We say it’s your right to vote or not vote, that you are making a decision by not voting.
And therefore, to have a law that says your refusal to vote in every single election becomes a predicate for your removal from the rolls I find problematic whether it’s from Democrats or Republicans.

But the Supreme Court has weighed in on that issue, and they have already — they said this past year that ‘use it or lose it’ is constitutional.

I believe what will make our distinction different is, yes, how aggressively it is applied and whether or not the standard of elections being used is the appropriate standard, but more importantly, if it’s part of a systemic effort to disenfranchise communities, that is deeply problematic.
Individually, certain things may seem completely benign or, certainly, responsible.
Yes, you might close a polling place.
Yes, you may have a ‘use it or lose it’ rule.
Yes, you may have an exact-match rule.
But when you have every single standard — every single rule that can be found to be a filter to remove rights to vote and access to that franchise from the people, when that is all coupled together — bundled together, because it’s more than two — our argument is that, systemically, you create a disenfranchisement of people that is unlawful and unconstitutional and un-American.

You lead me to this reflection, which I think — it’s that we really can’t separate our history from current events.
And so, I wonder, if you believe, taken together all of these things — exact match, the closing of the polling places — all of the things that we’ve detailed and talked about — do you think that brings us to a new generation of Jim Crow?

I think, if Georgia is allowed to continue to aggressively employ the systemic disenfranchisement that Brian Kemp did, that we are absolutely on the precipice, but we still have time to stop ourselves.
We still have time to pull back and to recommit ourselves to democracy in a true and real way, and that’s my place.
I’m not a nihilist.
I’m not a cynic.
I believe that we can do better.

One of the places where you have worked in the past and you’ll continue to work, I presume, is on voter-registration initiatives and voter-registration efforts, and voter registration has been at the forefront of our policy debates in this country for decades.
And on this show, 25 years ago, there was a debate with Mark Green, who was a New York Democrat, and William F. Buckley Jr.
about the motor voter law that facilitated people registering to vote when they got their driver’s license at their local Department of Motor Vehicles.
Let’s take a look at that debate.

What Buckley points to is reasonable requirements for voting, all right?

Mm-hmm.

My question for you is, are there any ‘reasonable requirements’ that should be imposed upon voters other than, 1, being an 18-year-old adult, and, 2, being a citizen of the United States?

I believe not.
We don’t set those requirements on paying your taxes.
And fundamental to the American ideal is no taxation without representation.
The way we allow people to express their opinion about representation is voting.
And so, if we have decided that certain populations will no longer be taxed in the United States, then I can see a consummate and concomitant conversation about the right to vote.

What is your view about some municipalities, like San Francisco, who have decided that it’s okay for some non-citizens to vote in local elections?

I think there’s a difference between municipal and state and federal.
Part of municipality — I’m not arguing for it or against it, but I will say, having been deputy city attorney, there’s a very — the granularity of what cities decide is so specific, as to, I think, allow for people to be participants in the process without it somehow undermining our larger democratic ethic that says that you should be a citizen to be a part of the conversation.

So, in some cases, you would be supportive of non-citizens voting?

I wouldn’t be — I wouldn’t oppose it.
I mean, I actually think that there are some cases where 16-year-olds should be allowed to cast their vote and cast their ballot.
I think school-board elections where kids actually got to speak to the effect of the decisions made by the school-board members — the effect it has on their education — I think there’s a legitimate argument for having that conversation.
I haven’t decided where I stand on it, but I think that’s a conversation we need to have.

So, you’re a solutions-oriented person, and every time we have an election, Republicans and Democrats at least agree on the fact that there are problems at the polls across the country and in counties and election districts across the country.
As a nation, what do we need to do to fix it?

Automatic voter registration, I think, actually makes sense.
You should be able to opt out.
There are reasonable requirements — making sure you actually live where you’re voting, making sure that you have the right to have an opinion in that election.

How do you keep the voter rolls clean?

You should, and I believe that there are ways to keep the voter rolls clean, but those ways should be benign and not malignant, and so —
What are they?

So, we know that you have coroners who file death certificates.
We know.
And especially, if we share better information across state lines, if someone registers in one state, that should flag where they were.
And part of it is that part of the American experiment is that we try to trust our citizens as much as possible.
We’re not a nation that has an overwhelming, aggressive voting population.

Right.

We struggle to get to 60% to 70% on a good year with billions of dollars spent.
So, we don’t have an over-voting problem in America.
And so, I do think that, if we’re going to err, we should err on the side of making it easier for voices to be heard, not harder, with reasonable methods of cleaning the rolls.
Not voting because you don’t want to is different than not voting because you’re not allowed to or because you’re dead.

Let me just ask you one other piece, ’cause there are three states that have among the highest voter-participation rate in the country.
These three states — Oregon, Washington, and Colorado — have 100% mail-in voting.

They do.

And the lowest of them has a 68% in voter participation rate.
That’s Oregon.
What do you think of this effort — initiative?

I think that voting by mail makes a great deal of sense.
I think it solves for the lack of public transit.
You don’t have to worry about the cost of keeping polling places open in low-income communities or in rural communities if they get to mail in their votes.
I think it makes sense.
I would love to see mail-in — you know, vote by mail be a national standard.

Here’s what people really want to know — people want to know what Stacey Abrams has in her future.
People want to know what’s next.
How has this election revised the trajectory?

So, always, in my spreadsheet, I have a column for being successful and not successful.
What has occurred in the aftermath of this election is that I did not anticipate that the lack of success could actually lead to more opportunity.
And what Fair Fight is allowing me to do, what Fair Count, which is gonna be our work on the census, and what this new free time I have, as I figure out my next job, both in politics, but, actually, how I pay my bills — it’s allowed me to think more intentionally about how I want to participate in my community going forward.
The next political job I have — it needs to be the right job, I need to be the right person, and I need to — the work that needs to be done, I should be excited about that work.
And so, I’m not going to run for office simply because an office is available.
And I’m not gonna run for office because there is a clamor on Twitter by 15 people who’ve seen my name to say I should.

Well, there’s more than 15 people who have recognized and noticed that there’s a Senate race in two years in Georgia, and Stacey Abrams might just be well-positioned to finally win statewide.

Well, I’m gonna make a decision soon.
I always want to make choices that are not grounded in ego or in animus or bitterness.
I’m getting past the election, but I’m still grieving a bit.
This was — This was an incredible amount of work that engaged people who had never heard their voices before, and my responsibility is to make certain they believe that their voices should be listened to not just because of me, but because of them.
And so, for me, it’s making sure that the next job I tackle — it’s because I’m the right person at the right time for that job.

Stacey Abrams, thank you for coming to ‘Firing Line.’

Thank you.

Thanks.

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