Stacey Abrams speaks at a June 2019 conference in Atlanta. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

AJC EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Abrams has big plans for national voting rights program 

Las Vegas - Stacey Abrams has ambitious plans for a national expansion of her voting rights program, which is set to train activists to defend against threats of voter suppression in 20 states by next year’s election. 

In a Tuesday interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Georgia Democrat and her top aide Lauren Groh-Wargo talked extensively about their goals for the Fair Fight 2020 initiative, Abrams’ political future and why they picked a Gwinnett County elementary school to launch the initiative this weekend. 

More: Abrams rules out 2020 presidential bid

More: Abrams launches national voting rights expansion

The following is the transcript of the interview. Some of the questions have been edited for brevity.

Q: Does your new initiative mean you are ruling out a run for president? 

Abrams: “My best value add in the primaries will be doing the work of fighting voter suppression. I will not be running.”

Q: Does that mean you’re considering a 2022 run against Brian Kemp?

Abrams: “My political future will be determined in the future. But my present and the work that needs to be done before my party chooses the nominee will be focusing on electoral opportunities and fighting voter suppression. We have to make certain that every eligible American can cast a ballot in 2020 – and that work has to start now.”

Q: What should Fair Fight 2020 accomplish for you to consider it a success? 

Abrams: “We’re going to be operating in 20 states. The goal is to ensure there is infrastructure in every single one of those states. Where voter protection processes aren’t something that wait until September of 2020 but they stay in place for the duration of 2020. The goal is going to be for us to have meaningful effects on ensuring that voters know their rights, they have access to ballots, that they will be able to effectively counter what Republicans will be doing. The reality is that we don’t know what the contours of their attacks will be, on top of what’s already in place ...

“One thing we learned in 2018 is that we built an infrastructure that was able to be responsive. Clearly, we had a much more aggressive foe in this process, but my mission is to make certain that we’ve learned from our election but also elections across the gamut and that we’re able to fight and push through and make sure more people have the right to vote.” 

Groh-Wargo: “Typically what’s happened with voter protection efforts is they have been started very late by the nominee in general elections in partnership with state parties. There has been almost no full-time staff in place by the time there is a general election nominee. We’re not starting up Fair Fight chapters across the nation. We’ve done the work with our legal team, with our staff, to figure out how we can support state parties and local Democratic allies in doing this work ... 

Abrams: “This is focused on not simply the presidential election but also the Senate races that are so critical and the down-ballot races that for many states determine who draws the maps for redistricting. By coming in early and using our learnings for 2018, and also what we learned from the process of building our litigation, we’ve been able to uncover and process some information that will be very helpful to states and state parties to ensure they are prepared for what’s to come.” 

Lauren Groh-Wargo, Stacey Abrams' campaign manager, speaks during a news conference in November 2018. (Bob Andres/Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Q: How do you have the expertise to delve into elections laws in 19 other states? 

Abrams: “We have a specific expertise. We know what to look for. We have been doing the research and the on-the-ground conversations with not only party leaders and those who have been in the trenches. Our mission is to create the infrastructure that will have staffing that’s permanent and is full-time but can scale by bringing in the people who have expertise – the local attorney who has had to file petitions before, the voter registrar who knows what happened in the last election that was contested.” 

Groh-Wargo: “There’s going to be historic turnout in primaries next year. And historic numbers of voters who have questions about how to register, where to register. It’s having a multi-lingual hotline, having social media and digital money to make sure the message is getting out. We’re not going to be the expert on every single state’s law. We’re going to be people who have a set of expertise and background in a general sense and know the pieces that need to be set up.” 

Abrams: “Part of what we’ve been doing in the lead up to this is having those conversations with the state parties, with the top-tier elected leaders so that they’re on the look-out for who this staff can be, who understand the contours of what’s going on ... We will have a network of voter-protection leaders who can watch what’s happening and share with each other.” 

Q: What do you mean when you say you’re not sure what form voter suppression will take next year?

Abrams: “It’s in three buckets of bad. It’s making it difficult to register to vote – and that has literally 50 different faces because each state has its own rules. It’s making certain that once you’ve been able to get on the rolls and stay on the rolls, you have access to the ballot. And with new laws, and changing laws ... it’s being able to access your ballot and making sure your ballot is counted. 

“What we are aware of and we are preparing to fight back against is that the sheer scale of voter suppression sometimes overwhelms the ability to push back. By setting up these voter protection agencies in the state parties is that we’re getting ready to push back against anything they can come up. But the most important piece is that we’re not reacting alone. We’re actually going to be proactively guaranteeing that people know what their rights are, and the people who are best situated to know these rights have the resources and information they need.”

Groh-Wargo: “And critically when a general election happens, and likely a very late nomination, a presidential campaign doesn’t have to scramble on this front. ... So they’re not scrambling, they’re scaling.” 

Voters wait in lone as voting machines are down at Annistown Elementary School in Snellville. Photo: Amanda C. Coyne

Q: Why did you pick Gwinnett County to roll out the program in Georgia? 

Abrams: “We chose Gwinnett because Gwinnett is emblematic of both the opportunity and the challenges that will be faced by voters in 2020. 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. Where the signature mismatch and the rejection of absentee ballots hit a peak, where naturalized citizens were challenged on their right to bring translators into the polls with them. But we also saw the most diverse slate of candidates stand up and get elected. We think Gwinnett is emblematic of what’s possible around this country.” 

Q: Republicans point to record turnout in last year’s election to counter your concerns about voter suppression.

Abrams: “It’s like saying because more people get in the water, there can’t be sharks. We know there can be. We know there will be. And Gwinnett is a perfect example. You have a perfect storm of increased enthusiasm and increased participation – but also incompetence, under-training and people who are simply confused about what the rules are. And that can harm the ability of those who are righteous and earnest about using their vote, but get thwarted about by voter suppression.”

Q: Are you worried that your national work will alienate Georgia voters? 

Abrams: “My responsibility is to ensure that every American who is eligible to vote has the right to vote in the upcoming elections. Elections are not about politicians. They’re about people having their say. And my responsibility, if I truly believe in this mission, is to focus on that outcome and not any ancillary effect it has on me. If I do my work, I’ve done my job as an American.”

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About the Author

Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein
Greg Bluestein is a political reporter who covers the governor's office and state politics for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.