Abrams’ push for voting rights
Stacey Abrams, who will deliver the Democratic response to the State of the Union address, is a dynamic speaker, a skillful political organizer and a gifted legislator. Those qualities no doubt played a role in the decision to choose her to rebut President Donald J. Trump.
There is also little doubt that race and gender played a role. As a black woman who is a rising star in the Democratic Party, Abrams is a living, breathing symbol of its 21st-century identity as the party of inclusion. Now that Trump has completed his takeover of the Republican Party, it is wholly identified with Trumpism — nativism, Islamophobia, racism, white Christian nationalism. The Democrats miss no opportunity to highlight the contrast.
But the most promising thing about the Democrats’ decision to give Abrams a prominent pulpit is her signature political platform: expansion of voting rights. She staked her campaign for governor of Georgia on that, and, though she narrowly lost, she intends to keep fighting against voter suppression. That campaign — to preserve a right fundamental to democracy — is crucial, and it seems the Democratic Party is prepared to take it on.
Even before the GOP wrapped itself in the mantle of exclusion, its tactics had given away its narrow focus on aging white voters. Rather than attempt to appeal to a more diverse constituency, Republican strategists decided to emphasize laws and regulations that would block the ballot, making it harder to access for voters who were likely to support Democrats. They targeted black and brown voters, poor voters, young voters.
By the start of the 21st century, Republican-dominated legislatures throughout the country had started to pass strict voter ID laws that demanded state-authorized photo identification at the ballot box. Since poorer voters are less likely to have drivers’ licenses, those laws have a disproportionate impact on voters of color. Voter ID requirements were followed by purges of voter rolls, the closing of polling places in neighborhoods of color and myriad other schemes to discourage certain constituencies.
Indeed, Republican efforts to impinge on voting rights likely played a role in Abrams’ defeat. She was defeated by Brian Kemp, who served for eight years as the GOP Secretary of State, a position which gave him broad control over voting regulations (and a position which he kept, incredibly, while running for governor). During his tenure, Kemp used every tactic he could think of to block the votes of people who would likely support Democrats.
He enacted the controversial “exact match” rule, which allowed him to purge citizens from voter rolls if a stray letter or hyphen on their voter registration cards differed from driver’s license records or Social Security rosters. More than 75 percent of those he purged were black, Latino or Asian-Americans, according to published reports.
He also moved aggressively to remove voters from the rolls if they had not cast ballots in successive elections, calling them “inactive.” He held up out 53,000 voter registration applications, more than 75 percent of which belonged to voters of color. While voting rights activists were about to counter some of Kemp’s tactics in court, many voters were already discouraged or fearful about casting a ballot. In other words, Kemp probably succeeded in denying Abrams votes that she would have won.
Kemp and his GOP compatriots have sold their voter suppression as a broad effort to ensure “ballot integrity.” But voter fraud is rare. Besides, Kemp, like other Republican politicians, had inadvertently admitted the truth. In a recording leaked last year, he was heard saying, “Democrats are working hard … registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines. If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”
And just this week, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave up the jig when he denounced a Democratic proposal to make Election Day a federal holiday. He called it a “power grab.”
Imagine that. If Election Day were a holiday, workers who cannot take a Tuesday off to vote would have a chance to cast a ballot. McConnell doesn’t want the unwashed masses to have the power given to them by the U.S. Constitution. Abrams and her allies have a lot of work to do.