Georgia gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp debate in October. Screenshot from PBS News Hour.
Most of us learn from early in life that politics is a grimy, dirty business. It is.
There was a time, however, when politicians engaged in unsavory activities and hatched backdoor deals in the shadows, under cover of darkness. But as the Georgia governor’s race illustrated, there are shameless Republicans who are hell bent on winning at any cost and the public and critics be damned.
Since November 10 – the day after the midterms – I have walked around incensed, slowing stewing in a cauldron of anger after watching a theft in plain sight.
It was clear from the very beginning that the fix was in.
I watched the bitter, contentious tug-of-war between former state House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams and then-Secretary of State Brian Kemp with interest, especially in the days after polls closed. Using what is widely acknowledged as systematic voter suppression put in play when he took office nine years ago, Kemp laid the groundwork that would tilt the election decidedly in his favor.
Abrams was trying to become the first black woman governor in the country. If she had garnered enough votes to deny Kemp a 50 percent-plus-one total, she’d have “lived to fight another day” — but she fell about 50,000 votes short of forcing a runoff.
She argued strenuously and convincingly that the election was neither free nor fair, and her campaign adeptly used the courts and federal judges to blunt Kemp’s chicanery and attempt to take his thumb off the scales.
After Abrams bowed out, a respected legal scholar and expert in election law cautioned Democrats not to say that Kemp stole the election because such a charge would feed mistrust and damage the integrity of the elections process.
So it’s okay for Kemp and other seedy, larcenous Republicans to engineer the blatant theft of black and other non-white votes, and the victims should chalk it up, be civil and give the miscreants engaged in such malfeasance a pass?
I couldn’t help but wonder about the naivete of ceding ground to people intent on subverting political norms and trampling the rights of black people as long as they win. And I thought of all the times that Africans in America have been called upon to accept political marginalization and disrespect from clueless apologists more interested in maintaining the status quo than in ensuring fairness and justice.
Despite repeated calls by Abrams, former President Jimmy Carter, Georgia Democratic Party officials and other critics for Kemp to step down as Georgia’s Secretary of State, he refused and oversaw his own election, engineered the means to control the outcome and became Georgia’s next governor.
This country and the world saw Kemp block, parry, obstruct, impede and thwart the legitimate efforts of Democrats – particularly black, Asian and Latino voters – and in the end slide into the governor’s mansion in a closely watched race characterized by what elections experts, pundits and others said was the epicenter of voting rights, voter suppression and voter manipulation. Kemp ultimately resigned as Secretary of State in November, but only after declaring victory over Abrams in the governor’s race.
The governor-elect drew from a playbook widely used by Republicans in legislatures across the country. According to the nonprofit Brenner Center for Justice, the “widespread, intense and brazen” voter suppression in Georgia and elsewhere is the worst it’s seen in the modern era.
On Election Day 2018, citizens in 24 states faced new laws making it harder for them to vote than in 2010. In nine of those states, it was harder to vote than it was in 2016, according to the Brennan Center.
The Republicans’ war on democracy found new life in the summer of 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court (in considering the Shelby County v Holder case) declared Section 4 of the landmark Voting Rights Act unconstitutional.
The next day, Republican lawmakers began enacting and implementing a slew of voter suppression measures because states were no longer under federal government oversight.
Consequently, the GOP has made it increasingly difficult for black people to cast ballots. Lack of federal oversight allowed Kemp to close 214 polling locations, slash early voting, purge voters for spurious reasons and place 53,000 voters in limbo during the midterms with the “exact match” program. (That program keeps voter registration applications pending — or cancels them altogether — if an applicant’s identity doesn’t match exactly to state and federal records.)
Abrams, in an interview on State of the Union, backed up her characterization of Kemp as “the architect of voter suppression” by pointing out his removal of 1.5 million voters from voter rolls since 2009, his delay and denial of new voter registrants, and the systematic disenfranchisement of African Americans, students, the elderly and the poor.
The GOP has clung to power utilizing fear, fraud, gerrymandering and voter manipulation. Lawmakers have used the boogeyman of voter fraud as the pretext for introducing tough and onerous measures and Republicans have revealed their true intentions: To siphon off enough Democratic votes to ensure that the Grand Ol’ Party retains control of the levers of power across the national political landscape.
Kemp will always face lingering questions about his legitimacy, the tactics he employed, the stark racist aspects of his rhetoric and campaign, as well as how and why he chose to oversee his own election as Secretary of State. But with these win-at-all-cost Republicans, such questions are ignored as long as they remain in power.
I was heartened when Abrams refused to concede and that she made it clear her remarks were not a concession speech. And I beamed when she told her supporters that she would not act as if the election was normal.
At a November press conference, she promised to continue to fight for fair and comprehensive elections. She acknowledged that Kemp would be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election but like myself and others, questioned his legitimacy.
“You see, as a leader I should be stoic in my outrage and silent in my rebuke but stoicism is a luxury and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people,” she said. “And I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right. To watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling.”
“Pundits and hyper-partisans will hear my words as a rejection of the normal order. You see, I’m supposed to say nice things and accept my fate. They will complain that I should not use this moment to recap what was done wrong or to demand a remedy,” she added.
“The law, as it stands, says that he received an adequate number of votes to become the governor of Georgia. And I acknowledge the law as it stands. I am a lawyer by training. And I am someone who’s taken a Constitutional oath to uphold the law. But we know, sometimes, the law does not do what it should and that something being legal does not make it right. This is someone who has compromised our systems. He’s compromised our democratic systems. And that is not appropriate.”
I admire Stacey Abrams’ chutzpah for not bowing down to conventional wisdom, for refusing to concede and especially for not being cowed by a rotten system and individuals who would purloin votes from her and expect her to say thank you.
To the chagrin of her critics, Abrams is not going away quietly.
She has created a new organization, Fair Fight Georgia; filed a federal lawsuit alleging that the Secretary of State’s office grossly mismanaged the election and the voter system, and is pushing the courts to reform the entire election system.
Specifically, the lawsuit asks the state to use paper ballots to validate the accuracy of elections; guarantee that there is enough election equipment so voters don’t have to wait in line for three hours or more; wants the Secretary of State’s office to no longer cancel voter registration of voters who haven’t participated in recent elections, and seeks to dilute or eliminate the state’s exact match law.
She may not have won the election, but Abrams always had her eyes on the big picture. And her efforts to clean up Georgia’s dirty and unscrupulous election machine will ultimately benefit that state’s voters, even those who support Kemp and his ilk.
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