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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Margaret Hoover: The politician who refused to concede even as she ended her campaign this week on Firing Line.

 Margaret Hoover: 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.

 Stacey Abrams: I did not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right.

 Margaret Hoover: 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. Firing Line with Margaret Hoover is made possible by.

 The Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation the Robertson Foundation. David Tepper charitable foundation. Marlene Ricketts. The Agnes Family Foundation. Spencer behavior corporate funding is provided by Stephens. And by. Pfizer.


Margaret Hoover: Stacey Abrams, welcome to Firing Line.

 Stacey Abrams: Thank you for having me.


Margaret Hoover: You have just completed a run for governor as a progressive candidate in Georgia a state that is a red state has historically been a 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.


Stacey Abrams: 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’d 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 going to keep changing and 2018 for me was the year to test that out and to really encourage people to speak up especially communities that have largely been absent from politics for the last 15 to 20 years. And your campaign garnered national attention because your critics and your supporters all acknowledge that you turned the rules of politics upside down in the south. I mean you really almost won you were so close you know you had hoped and thought that instead of sitting here you’d be the sitting governor of Georgia today. And I wonder just in general terms if you feel that it was stolen from you.


Stacey Abrams: I think it was stolen from Georgians. I believe that no one can know what would have happened and the reality is voter suppression is an inexact tool. And I believe that we did not have a fair fight.


Margaret Hoover: 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 and the tweet read “Retweet If you think Abrams is too extreme for Georgia” do you think the sitting governor of Georgia is racist?


Stacey Abrams: I believe his actions are racist. I believe he has taken positions that demonstrate 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 have considered him someone that I could trust and talk to about issues we weren’t friends but we we got along well. We had each other cell phone numbers. I was deeply disturbed by the tenor of his race because it was not consistent with the person I’d known a decade before.


Margaret Hoover: Do you think that kind of tone and tenor helped him.


Stacey Abrams: Yes absolutely.


Margaret Hoover: Does that mean that Georgians are racist.


Stacey Abrams: 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.


Margaret Hoover: One of things that was so remarkable about your campaign is in an off year election cycle it could not no president at the top of the ticket -three point nine million people almost four million people voted in Georgia. It was a really historic turnout. And yet on election night you fell short. Fifty five thousand votes. Can you explain to viewers what was it about those fifty five thousand votes that made you choose not to concede on election night.


Stacey Abrams: One we knew that every vote had not been counted. We were receiving thousands of phone calls to a voter protection hotline that we set up. And in fact over the next 10 days we received more than 40000 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 who 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.


Margaret Hoover: Even though you lost by fifty five thousand votes. What you really needed to do was find 18000 votes because that would have triggered a runoff between you and Brian Kemp 


Stacey Abrams: As you said, in Georgia our runoff system said you have to receive 50 percent 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 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.


Margaret Hoover: Did you believe that there was a real possibility of enough electoral malfeasance and it could have triggered you could have gotten those eighteen thousand four absolutely trigger a runoff. 


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


Margaret Hoover: OK so ten 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 going to play a portion of that. 


Stacey Abrams: SPEECH SOT: This is not a speech of concession. A Concession speech to acknowledge it actually is right. True. Or. And the woman of conscience and faith I can not concede that but my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy.


Margaret Hoover: You also said in that speech that democracy failed Georgia. Yes. Do you still believe that.


Stacey Abrams: I do.


Margaret Hoover: Your supporters have widely praised the speech. (GFX) There was one headline that read Stacey Abrams concession speech is a powerful critique of U.S. civil rights. And your critics have widely condemned it. (GFX) 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.


Stacey Abrams: 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.


Margaret Hoover: Your opponent Brian Kemp. He was the secretary of state. That had happened before– secretaries of state had also run for governor.


Stacey Abrams: None had ever been the candidate in the general election.


Margaret Hoover: In the 2000s the Democratic secretary of state who ran for governor.


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


Margaret Hoover: Ok. And Do you believe that that disqualified him in some way.


Stacey Abrams: 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 wrote our democracy. I believe that if it’s a fair and level playing field you can lose I will lose. But I believe that the field has to be made level for Democrats and Republicans.


Margaret Hoover: 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.


Stacey Abrams: Right.


Margaret Hoover: And so and then he spent a lot of time casting doubt at and calling the election rigged if he would have lost and casting doubt on the electoral process and the legitimacy of the democratic process. How do you make the case that that you’re not doing the same thing.


Stacey Abrams: 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 refuse to let that be the narrative. And if you look at everything I said everything I had I pushed my supporters to say we were not going to deal with delegitimize the process because I need it 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 is 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.


Margaret Hoover: The 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 a historically close margins. And Nixon was convinced that the vote was stolen from him in both Illinois and in Texas. And he decided it 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? 


Stacey Abrams: 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 for our 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. 


Margaret Hoover: So there you understand that there is this nuance or this tension between supporting the democratic process and delegitimizing the democratic process.


Stacey Abrams: 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 be held tight. I could have filed a contest.  The Law of Georgia would have allowed me to contest on the actual results of the election.  It would have allowed me to say, this isn’t fair.  We’re going to fight 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.


Margaret Hoover: So you didn’t think you had the votes?


Stacey Abrams: No, I didn’t know I had sufficient information.


Margaret Hoover: So, if you had had… a real indication that the votes were there?


Stacey Abrams: So if I had known that the results would have changed for me.  Here’s my point.  I could contest and continue the process.  But I did not know one way or the other. This was a systemic activity.  It is not as though I said I am going to fight until I get what I want.  I said I am going to fight until we have trust in the system.  And that’s very different.  I don’t benefit from it.  There is no universe in which at the end of our case Brian Kemp is deposed and I am installed.  Can’t happen.  And that is a remedy I could have sought but I didn’t.


Margaret Hoover: So let’s talk Fair Fight Action. So Fair Fight Action is the social welfare organization that is along with others suing the processing governor and electoral officials in the state of Georgia in federal district court. And you said it’s 64 pages I 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 matches. Can you explain for the audience what exact match was?


Stacey Abrams: Under Georgia law the application submitted and processed by the registrar has to exactly match either the Department of Motor Vehicles which we called d d s in Georgia or has to match the Social Security Administration that he was 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 name. So if your last name is Del Rios it compresses it 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.


Margaret Hoover: The other one I’d like to talk about is use it or lose it because user lose it was a law that was actually passed in Georgia overwhelmingly by Democrats in nineteen ninety seven. Can you tell me what’s wrong with that law.


Stacey Abrams: 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.


Margaret Hoover: First tell me what the law is– what use it or lose it means.


Stacey Abrams: So use it or lose it says that if you don’t vote in a certain number of successive elections then you can be scrubbed from the rolls meaning you are deregistered 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 that we do not have a mandatory voting law in America the way they have in Australia. We say it’s your right to vote or not 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.


Margaret Hoover: 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.


Stacey Abrams: 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 user to lose that rule. 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 sound to be a filter to remove the right 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.


Margaret Hoover: You lead me to sort of this reflection which I think is 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.


Stacey Abrams: 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.


Margaret Hoover: 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. Twenty five years ago there was a debate with Mark Green who is a new York Democrat and WilliamF. BuckleyJr. 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.


WILLIAM BUCKLEY: SOT CLIP FROM BUCKLEY/FIRING LINE: Well I think this is a lousy idea. Everybody has a chance to vote. The question is whether there ought to be reasonable requirements. Now in our century we have seen the vote given to women. Good. We have seen votes given to two blacks. Good. We have seen votes given to illiterates. The notion that there ought to be some process. Through which one has to pass before one vote is I think a deliberative. Concession. To the requirements of thoughtful voting.


MARK GREEN: If you have registration requirements as bad as the Old South or something tantamount to it. You are de facto weeding out.


WILLIAM BUCKLEY: I wish I wish you wouldn’t weaken your argument by pointing to abuses of it. I mean I can debate point abuses of free speech without saying we ought to repeal the First Amendment.


Margaret Hoover: What Buckley points to is reasonable requirements for voting. All right. My question to you is are there any reasonable requirements quote unquote that should be imposed upon voters other than one being an 18 year old adult and two being a citizen of the United States.


Stacey Abrams: 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.


Margaret Hoover: What is your view about some municipalities like San Francisco who have decided that it’s OK for some non-citizens to vote in local elections.


Stacey Abrams: I think there’s a difference between municipal and state and federal part of this policy.. I’m not arguing for it or against it but I will say having been deputy city attorney there is 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 a conversation.


Margaret Hoover: So not in some cases you would be supportive of non-citizens.


Stacey Abrams: 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 these school board members the effect it has on their education. I think there is 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.


Margaret Hoover: So you’re solutions oriented person and every time we have an election Republicans and Democrats can at least agree on the fact that there are problems at the polls across the country. As a nation what do we need to do to fix it.


Stacey Abrams: 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.


Margaret Hoover: How do you keep the voter rolls clean.


Stacey Abrams: You should and I believe that there are ways to keep the voter rolls clean but those ways should be benign and not malignant. 


Margaret Hoover: And so what are they. 


Stacey Abrams: so we know that you have coroners who file death certificates. We know and especially if we shared 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 experience 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. We struggle to get to 60 to 70 percent 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.


Margaret Hoover: Let me just ask you one other piece because there are three states that have among the highest voter participation rate in the country. These three states (GFX) Oregon Washington and Colorado have one 100 percent and mail in voting.


Stacey Abrams: They do.


Margaret Hoover: And the lowest of them has a 68 percent of voter participation rate. That’s Oregon. What do you think of this effort.


Stacey Abrams: I think that voting by mail makes a great deal of sense. I think it’s also 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 and vote by mail be a national standard.


Margaret Hoover: That’s near and dear to my heart. So I wanted to get you to weigh in on it. Here’s what’s what. People I 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 ?


Stacey Abrams: 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 going to 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 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 going to run for office because there is a clamor on Twitter but 15 people who’ve seen my name to say I should.


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


Stacey Abrams: 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 I’m still grieving. 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 listed listened to. Not just because of me but because of them. And so for me it’s making sure that the next job I’d tackle. It’s because I’m the right person at the right time for that job.


Margaret Hoover: Stacey Abrams, Thank you for coming.


Stacey Abrams: Thank you.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Firing Line with Margaret Hoover is made possible by the Margaret and Daniel Loeb Foundation the Robertson Foundation. David Tepper Charitable Foundation Inc. Marlene Ricketts. The Agnes Family Foundation. Spencer behavior corporate funding is provided by Stephens Inc. And by. Pfizer Inc.


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