Abrams kicks off voting initiative from symbolic Gwinnett spot

Stacey Abrams launched a new initiative Saturday focused on preventing voter suppression in Georgia in a place freighted with political symbolism: A school in Gwinnett County where malfunctioning voting machines last year led to hours-long lines.

The Georgia Democrat kicked off her Fair Fight 2020 program at Snellville's Annistown Elementary school, where technical issues became an example of the problems that plagued that state's elections in 2018.

“Gwinnett is emblematic of both the opportunity and the challenges that will be faced by voters in 2020,” Abrams said in an interview. “It’s a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-lingual community where we saw extraordinary levels of turnout -- but we also saw extraordinary levels of suppression.”

The Fair Fight 2020 program will train Democrats in 20 states, many of them political battlegrounds, to better monitor voting problems and ballot access issues before next year’s vote.

The new initiative is an offshoot of the Fair Fight voting rights group that Abrams rebranded shortly after her narrow loss to Gov. Brian Kemp. She ended that race without formally conceding defeat, blasting Kemp for not stepping down as the state’s top elections official during the campaign.

Shortly after announcing the new initiative, Abrams told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution she would not join the race for president, the first time she had publicly ruled out a 2020 bid. She did not, however, shut down the possibility of being selected as a running mate.

“I’m making my stand here in Georgia. We’re making a stand here for justice,” Abrams told a few hundred people crowded into the school’s gym. “We know 2020 is about all the marbles.”

More: Abrams launches national voting rights expansion

More: Abrams rules out 2020 presidential bid

‘A failure of democracy’

Her aides said the program will assist Democrats in the 20 states hire staff and set up operations, such as voter hotlines and publicity campaigns, either through direct investments or by helping groups raise the funds themselves. It’s expected to spend at least $4 million through next year.

The program will give Abrams a platform in the nation's swing states, mostly in the Midwest and South. It will also afford Abrams another opportunity to elevate her national brand as she prepares for a likely rematch against Kemp in 2022.

The Democratic Party of Georgia, which operated a hotline last year that received more than 80,000 calls about voting problems, is also boosting its infrastructure. Party chair Nikema Williams said recruitment is underway for volunteers “in every county who will help educate voters on their rights.”

The problems that plagued voters at Annistown Elementary were a constant theme of the launch event Saturday, which attracted a few hundred people crowded into the school gym.

Back in 2018, the Annistown precinct remained open hours after voting was to end because of extensive issues with the electronic ExpressPoll system, which is used to check in voters before they’re issued voting access cards.

“We felt like it was a failure of democracy,” said Karen Starks, who was a poll watcher that evening for a nonpartisan group. “We were all wondering: Why were these machines not working?”

In Georgia, counties are responsible for interpreting and implementing state election law, and Republicans often say state officials shouldn’t be blamed for mishaps at local polling sites.

But Abrams said the the uneven standards for counting provisional and absentee ballots, the cancellations of thousands of voter registrations from Georgians who didn't participate in recent elections and lengthy waits at Annistown Elementary and other polling places could have been prevented by a leader focused on voting rights.

“If I was governor, I’d have done a whole lot of things different by now. The governor of Georgia should know that every voter matters,” she said, adding: “We’re going to make him work for that job because we’re going to make certain there’s a fair fight in 2020.”