Mother Jones illustration; Robin Rayne/Zuma
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On a bright, crisp Saturday morning in late October, Stacey Abrams’ purple campaign bus arrived in Stone Mountain, Georgia. The city of 6,700 outside of Atlanta is best known for its nearby state park, where the Ku Klux Klan was reborn in 1915 and a 1,700-foot-high relief sculpture of the Confederate leaders Robert E. Lee, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson and Jefferson Davis is carved in granite.
Stone Mountain’s connection to white supremacy has long been an affront to civil rights activists. “Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia,” Martin Luther King Jr. said in his “I Have a Dream” speech. Abrams has called the monument “a blight on the state,” but state law prohibits its removal. In 2000, however, the town installed a large Freedom Bell downtown, next to a gazebo and the railroad tracks. Today the town of Stone Mountain is nearly three-quarters Black, and Joe Biden won 83 percent of the vote in surrounding DeKalb County.
“I know where we are,” Abrams said as she campaigned alongside the actress Kerry Washington and Democratic candidates for secretary of state and attorney general. “We’re in Stone Mountain. And this ain’t the Stone Mountain it used to be, is it?”
“No, no!” voices in the diverse crowd of roughly 200 yelled back.
“We’re standing next to that Freedom Bell. And on November 8, that bell’s going to ring loud, ain’t it?” Abrams asked to cheers.
Abrams, who for the second time is seeking to become the first Black woman governor in US history, is constantly reminded of the tension between the Old and New South. Her campaign bus has a sign inside depicting in emojis all the white men who have been governor of Georgia, followed by an image of her smiling face, with the tagline: “GA Governors Make History.”
If the burdens of history and a difficult midterm environment for Democrats weren’t challenging enough, Abrams faces an additional problem in 2022: Her opponent, Brian Kemp, whom she calls “the chief architect of modern day voter suppression,” is now being hailed in many quarters as a heroic defender of democracy.
“In 2018, Kemp was the Trumpy candidate accused of subverting democracy; now he’s the candidate who defied Trump to defend it,” Time wrote recently. Because he certified Biden’s victory in Georgia over Trump’s objections (as was legally required) and then easily defeated a Trump-endorsed primary challenger this year, Kemp “wrote the GOP playbook for subduing Trump’s election fury,” said CNN. The governor, along with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and Vice President Mike Pence, showed “backbone and a moral and institutional integrity that will redound to their credit in the history books,” wrote Rich Lowry of National Review.
Trump was supposed to end Kemp’s career, but instead he may have saved it by allowing Kemp to appear like a moderate without ever having to moderate any of his hard-line policy positions, such as supporting a six-week abortion ban, the right to carry a handgun practically anywhere without a permit, and refusing to expand Medicaid while Georgia hospitals close. That helps explain why Kemp leads Abrams in the polls and could win 50 percent of the vote or higher on November 8, avoiding a runoff.
Kemp’s certification of the last election—and the media’s fawning coverage of it—has allowed him to distance himself from the scores of GOP candidates this year who have questioned or sought to overturn the election results. But Abrams argues that Kemp is a different kind of election denier. The fact that he defended how votes were counted in 2020, she notes, has overshadowed how he’s sought to limit access to the ballot over the course of his career.
“When you are willing to deny election access, you are just as guilty of undermining democracy,” she told me in the back of her wood-paneled campaign bus. “And he is getting a pass on 16 years of behavior for one moment of mere competence. That should be very concerning to all of us, because when our bar is so low, anyone can step over it.”
In 2014, when he was Georgia’s secretary of state, Kemp announced an investigation into a major voter registration drive launched by the Abrams-founded New Georgia Project, accusing the group of “significant illegal activities.” The probe made national headlines; Abrams called it a “fishing expedition” meant to “suppress our efforts.” Of the 87,000 registration forms submitted by the group, Kemp’s office ultimately identified only 53 registration applications as possibly fraudulent, submitted by outside canvassers hired by the New Georgia Project. No charges were filed against the group, and Abrams was cleared of wrongdoing.
Kemp’s real concern seemed to be how Abrams’ activities were changing the composition of Georgia’s electorate by activating younger voters and communities of color. “Democrats are working hard registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines,” he warned. “If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”
Four years later, Kemp ran for governor as a “politically incorrect conservative” and touted his endorsement from Trump. “I’m so conservative,” he said in one TV ad, “I got a big truck, just in case I need to round up criminal illegals and take ’em home myself. Yep, I just said that.” In another ad, he pointed a shotgun at a boy who wanted to date his daughter while invoking his “healthy appreciation for the Second Amendment.”
Kemp refused to recuse himself as the state’s top election official while he ran for higher office, even though he was essentially overseeing his own election. Former President Jimmy Carter, who’d monitored elections all over the world, said that Kemp’s position ran “counter to the most fundamental principle of democratic elections—that the electoral process be managed by an independent and impartial election authority.”
It was an early example of how election officials could use their power not to encourage people to vote but to shape election outcomes to their liking—a playbook that GOP candidates across the country are hoping to replicate in 2022. Kemp oversaw a series of restrictive voting laws passed or implemented in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision gutting the Voting Rights Act that allowed him, as both a player and referee in the election, to “tilt the playing field in his favor,” Abrams said.
That included putting the registrations of more than 50,000 Georgians—80 percent of them voters of color—on hold because information on their forms did not exactly match state databases; purging more than 2 million voters from the rolls; presiding over the closure of more than 200 polling places; overseeing the longest wait times in country in 2018; and falsely accusing the Democratic Party of “possible cyber crimes” 72 hours before the election.
Yet it was Abrams’ response to the election—not Kemp’s questionable handling of it—that has become a dominant storyline in 2022.
“I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election,” Abrams said 10 days after the election. “But to watch an elected official—who claims to represent the people of this state—baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people’s democratic right to vote has been truly appalling. So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession.”
Abrams didn’t challenge the certification of the election like Trump did in 2020, nor did she try to overturn the results. And there were real election problems in 2018, unlike Trump’s phantom claims of widespread fraud in 2020. But Kemp and his allies have continued to highlight her non-concession speech to paint Abrams as a proponent of “the original Big Lie.” (She did file a lawsuit to reform Georgia’s voting laws; it helped lead to key administrative changes that broadened voting access but was ultimately unsuccessful in federal court.)
Meanwhile, Kemp’s role in institutionalizing Trump’s Big Lie nearly has nearly been forgotten.
It was Georgia, after all, that provided the blueprint for the wave of anti-voter legislation passed by Republicans over the past two years. In March 2021, Kemp signed a bill that restricted voting access in more than a dozen ways, including a reduction in the number of drop boxes in metro Atlanta from 97 to 23, new voter-ID requirements for mail-in ballots, a far lower bar for rejecting ballots cast in the wrong precinct, less time to request and return mail ballots, a prohibition on election officials sending mail-in ballot applications to all voters, and a ban on giving voters food or water while they’re waiting in line.
SB 202 further impeded fair-election administration by removing the secretary of state (a Trump critic) from the state election board and giving the heavily gerrymandered, GOP-controlled legislature the power to appoint the board’s chair. It also gave the board power to take over up to four county election boards that it viewed as “underperforming” or where local officials had lodged complaints. In addition, it allowed an unlimited number of voters to be challenged and required local election boards to hear these challenges within 10 days or face sanctions from the state election board, which could lead local boards to decline to certify election results or disqualify enough voters to swing a close election—precisely the situation Trump pushed for in 2020.
When a Black member of the legislature, Democratic state Rep. Park Cannon, knocked on the governor’s door as he announced his signing of the bill, the Georgia Capitol Police arrested her and forcefully dragged her from the building, bringing felony charges that conjured images of how Black protesters were treated by law enforcement in Georgia during the Jim Crow era. (The chargers were later dropped.) He signed the bill surrounded by an all-white group of Georgia legislators, under a painting of a slave plantation.
Kemp admitted he signed the bill because of his unhappiness with the 2020 election, after Biden carried the state and Democrats won two US Senate races. “I was as frustrated as anyone else with the results, especially at the federal level,” he said during a GOP primary debate in May. “And we did something about it with Senate Bill 202.” The Georgia law became “the example for the rest of the country,” according to the conservative group Heritage Action for America, which drafted model legislation to restrict voting rights. Twenty-one states have passed 42 new laws restricting access to the ballot since the beginning of 2021, according to the Brennan Center for Justice.
The Georgia law is having a clear impact this election cycle. Conservative activists and election deniers have challenged the eligibility of more than 65,000 voters through the early voting period, claiming they no longer live at the correct address. Though 95 percent of the challenges have been dismissed at the county level, they have led to confusion and accusations of voter intimidation; in some cases, voters have showed up at the polls and been told they cannot vote because someone has challenged their eligibility.
On October 27, Stephanie Friedman, a 50-year-old mother of three from France who became a naturalized US citizen in 2016, went to cast her ballot at an early voting location at a library in the north Atlanta suburbs. There was no line, and she thought it would take two minutes to vote. But went she checked in with a poll worker, they informed her that her eligibility had been challenged. She didn’t know who had challenged her right to vote or why.
“It doesn’t feel good when you do everything you need to do to vote and your vote is challenged,” she told me. “The first thing that went through my mind was, what did I do wrong?”
A supervisor called the main Fulton County election office, and, after waiting 20 minutes, they confirmed that Friedman was eligible to vote and could cast a ballot that day. But the experience left her frightened and angry, and she worries that voters “who are more vulnerable” and are challenged on days when there are longer lines at the polls, “are going to turn around and not vote.”
Abrams shares those concerns. “Right-wing groups are weaponizing the ability to challenge a voter for basically no reason,” she says. “And that’s making it harder for voters to navigate the system. And if you’re a first time voter, if you don’t have the wherewithal, if you don’t know the system, then it’s very easy for this to have a chilling effect on you.”
The wide range of new restrictions on mail voting have also worked as intended.
As Mother Jones reported, during municipal elections last November, Georgia voters were 45 times more likely to have their mail ballot applications rejected—and ultimately not vote as a result—than in 2020. If that same rejection rate were extrapolated to the 2020 race, more than 38,000 votes would not have been cast in a presidential contest decided by just over 11,000 votes.
Democrats promoted mail voting in 2018 and on a much larger scale during the pandemic in 2020 to increase turnout in Georgia, including among Black voters and other constituencies that were less likely to go to the polls. But they’ve scaled back those efforts in 2022—instead choosing to put their resources behind encouraging voters to vote in-person during the early voting period. “Voting early is the solution to most of the issues caused by SB 202,” says Abrams’ campaign manager, Lauren Groh-Wargo. “Voting early means people have time to fix issues and more than one chance to cast their ballot. If there are long lines, they can come back. It’s much harder to solve problems on Election Day.”
On the first Friday of early voting, I traveled to Peachtree City, a lakefront community 30 miles south of Atlanta, where Sen. Raphael Warnock led a golf cart parade to the polls.
“It’s great to be in the land of the golf carts,” he joked.
“Welcome to the South!” a woman in the crowd shouted back.
Republicans carried Fayette County, which includes Peachtree City, by 41 points in 2000, but Trump won it by only 7 points in 2020, a sign of how the state is changing.
“If you turn out, I know how it’s going to turn out,” said Warnock, who’s locked in a close race with Republican Herschel Walker.
He hopped in a golf cart with a Warnock sign in the front and led a procession through tall pine trees, around the lake, and to the polling site at the local library, where the line stretched out the door.
A few days later, Abrams spoke at a Black church in Lithonia, 15 minutes from Stone Mountain, to encourage people to vote on Sunday, when Black churches hold “Souls to the Polls” drives. (Georgia Republicans tried to eliminate Sunday voting in an earlier version of SB 202.)
When the pastor asked how many people had already voted, roughly 80 percent of hands went up.
Georgia has seen record turnout for a midterm election’s early voting period, with more than 2 million ballots cast as of Thursday, well above 2018 levels. Yet that high turnout is being spun by Republicans not as a sign of successful organizing against voter suppression efforts, but as evidence that barriers to the ballot box don’t exist, which furthers the narrative that democracy is not under threat.
“Stacey Abrams—who to this day has never conceded her loss in 2018—is grasping at straws like any desperate politician would this late in the campaign,” said Kemp’s press secretary, Tate Mitchell. “Her lawsuit over the 2018 results was rejected on every count by an Obama-appointed judge, and Georgia has seen record turnout in both the Democrat and Republican primaries as well as early voting for the general election.”
“That notion that more people are voting disproves voter suppression is like saying because more people get in the water there’s suddenly fewer sharks,” Abrams said. “The sharks are still there. We just have to know how to navigate around them and get to the other side.”
Yet the idea that Kemp isn’t all that bad and that barriers to voting aren’t that high has led Democratic donors to shift resources to other states where the risk of a Big Lie takeover of the election system is seen as more dire. Groups like the New Georgia Project and America Votes have raised half of what they did in 2020. Abrams’ campaign has had to scale-back TV advertising in the campaign’s final days.
Abrams is aware that while all eyes were on Georgia in 2018 and even more so during 2020 and the 2021 Senate runoff elections, threats to democracy across the nation have spread and metastasized since then. What would it mean, I asked her, if people who don’t believe in free and fair elections take over the election system?
“That we will not have democracy,” she responded.