KENNESAW, Ga. — Seeking vindication after a stinging 2018 gubernatorial loss, former Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams stands by her refusal to concede in what she calls a “broken” election system that saw her lose by less than 1.5 percentage points to Brian Kemp.
“I acknowledge that [Kemp] won, but I will never say that a system that is broken — that denied people their right to vote — is the right thing to have in the state and as part of democracy,” Abrams said in a sit-down interview with Yahoo News last week in Kennesaw, Ga., moments before a campaign event.
Abrams, a Democrat who is again running against Kemp for the governor’s seat, admits she’s heard a fair amount of ridicule from critics over the years for her decision, but she rejects Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s assertion that her refusal to concede that race gave way to former President Donald Trump’s false election fraud claims.
“It is deeply concerning to me that a secretary of state doesn’t understand the difference between the lies being told by Donald Trump and the truth that Republicans acknowledged in the complaints that we raised about the electoral system in Georgia,” Abrams said.
“The difference is very stark when I did not win my election in 2018,” she added. “The first thing I said was that I acknowledged the outcome — that the new governor was Brian Kemp. I was not the governor, but I did say the system was broken.”
Since that loss, Abrams said, she went through a range of emotions — from sadness to anger to action. In November 2018, a voting rights group Abrams founded, Fair Fight Action, challenged the constitutionality of Georgia’s voting system, accusing the state’s election leaders of systemic voter suppression. Few changes have come out of the over-three-year legal battle as a judge has narrowed the scope of the suit, but a six-week trial concluded last month and a verdict is expected soon. A win for Fair Fight Action could have implications in November’s election, though appeals could postpone any significant changes until after. The lead defendant in that case is Raffensperger, who has called the lawsuit meritless.
“Almost all of Abrams’ claims have already been dismissed, and the remaining ones are nowhere close to what she alleged in her nonconcession speech [in 2018],” Raffensperger told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Her three-year ‘stolen election’ campaign has been nothing more than a political stunt to keep her in the national spotlight, and it’s a disservice to voters.”
But Abrams maintains that the lawsuit alone is a win for democracy, despite the push by Republican officials across the state to make voting harder for the most marginalized Georgians.
“Part of the First Amendment, part of who we are as Americans, is that we have the right to challenge systems,” she said. “Challenging a system isn’t the problem. It is when you refuse to be a part of the solution, or when you lie about what the challenges are.”
Raffensperger, a Republican who is in charge of the state’s voting process, was widely lauded for standing up to Trump, who pressured the secretary of state to “find 11,780” votes in the 2020 presidential election to give Trump the win in Georgia. But months later, he was also integral in the crafting of Senate Bill 202, a state law that lessened the number of ballot boxes in communities — something Abrams says is unforgivable. An NPR report from last month found that the bill reduced ballot box access in the communities that needed them most, which also have the highest number of voters of color and Democrats.
“I hope that people don’t give Brad Raffensperger credit because this is a man who with one breath is getting credit for not committing treason, but he was also the architect of S.B. 202 that is denying people use of drop boxes,” Abrams said. “Denying people the equitable use of absentee ballots is making it difficult for people to navigate the system and is creating a pathway for election subversion. Those are truths.”
In elections that have had close finishes, like the ones in Georgia, experts say decisions to change the number of ballot boxes could prove monumental.
“In any state that’s going to have tight elections, and Georgia’s had some nail-biters, then even those marginal changes could have significant effects on the outcome of elections,” Benjamin Gonzalez O’Brien, professor of political science at San Diego State University, told NPR. “Not every election is decided by tens of thousands of votes. Some are decided by under 100 votes.”
Despite record turnout in the primary elections in May, Abrams believes that the bill continues to disadvantage the most vulnerable Georgians.
“We have seen increased participation in elections year over year in the state of Georgia,” she said, adding that the number of voters cannot be the only metric. “Voter suppression isn’t designed to stop all voting. It is designed to create barriers for some voters and those voters indeed face barriers. ... Because more people get in the water, it doesn’t mean there are fewer sharks. Those barriers are there.”
The latest polling from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution late last month shows Kemp with a 5-point lead over Abrams with key metrics indicating that Abrams has some ground to make up among Black voters, most specifically Black men. Even still, political experts remain cautiously optimistic that if she can gain more than 90% of the Black vote, she will fare well in November.
“The biggest red flag for the Abrams campaign is that few, if any, [polls] have her at her 2018 mark and every poll has her trailing,” Fred Hicks, an Atlanta-based political strategist and analyst, told Yahoo News. “Abrams has to first bring back the coalition that took her to the brink and then inspire more voters within that coalition to come out and vote. The race will tighten, but she has a lot of ground to cover. If there is a candidate who can pull it off, it is Stacey Abrams, but time is running short.”
“The one thing that Stacey Abrams has demonstrated over her career is that she has a unique ability to take a licking and keep on ticking,” Antjuan Seawright, a Democratic strategist, told Yahoo News. “And so the more they try to beat her down ... the stronger I think she will get. Polls are simply a snapshot of the time. They’re not the total wide camera view of what the reality of the political picture looks like.”
Less than 100 days from Georgia’s gubernatorial race, Abrams once again finds herself on the brink of history. If she wins, she will be the first Black female governor in U.S. history. While Abrams’s campaign has prioritized local outreach, she notes that she welcomes national support, including from President Biden, despite missing his visit to Georgia earlier this year because of a scheduling conflict.
“He’s the president of the United States and he’s the president of the citizens of Georgia,” she said. “My mission is to say to anyone who wants to lift up Georgia and lift up opportunity, ‘You are welcome here to help me win this election.’”
Cover thumbnail: Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images