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Stacey Abrams discusses the fight against voter suppression at UNE’s annual MLK Celebration

February 03, 2020

On January 22, as part of its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration, the University of New England had the distinct honor of hosting former Georgia House Democratic leader and former Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams, who addressed a mesmerized crowd of students, faculty, professional staff, and members of the public on the University’s Portland Campus. Among attendees were Maine Governor Janet Mills and former state legislator Gerald Talbot, who formerly served on UNE’s Board of Trustees.

UNE President James Herbert kicked off the event by reminding the audience of King’s historic visit to the Biddeford Campus in 1956. He recalled UNE’s history (through its predecessor institutions) of inclusion of marginalized peoples and celebrated the current and ongoing work of UNE, as prescribed in its strategic plan, of bolstering inclusivity on campus through new student clubs, such as the Muslim Student Association and the Black Student Union; a new welcoming breakfast for students of color, a more visible Cultural Exchange Lounge; enhanced recruitment efforts that have resulted in increasingly diverse student class bodies, a new campus-wide committee to guide and oversee inclusion efforts; and the creation of a new position of assistant provost for community, equity, diversity, and inclusion.

Herbert also acknowledged the hard work and dedication of Director of Intercultural Student Engagement Erica Rousseau in organizing the day’s event, whom he invited to the stage to introduce the day’s special guests, Abrams and the event moderator, Theodore R. Johnson, a senior fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice and author of the forthcoming book “When the Stars Begin to Fall.”

Abrams made history in 2018 as the first black woman to earn a gubernatorial nomination for a major party, and she made headlines after coming within just 50,000 votes of beating the race’s ultimate victor, Brian Kemp, the then-Georgia Secretary of State, amidst allegations of rampant racially motivated voter suppression.

Over the course of her career, Abrams has founded multiple organizations devoted to voting rights, training and hiring young people of color, and tackling social issues at both the state and national levels. After witnessing the gross mismanagement of the 2018 election, however, she made the bold move of launching a multistate voter protection initiative, Fair Fight 2020, which combats voter suppression through litigation, legislation, and advocacy measures.

Just as we had, for so many years, candidates who eschewed talking to communities of color because they just presumed that they weren’t going to vote, I also had to push back against his notion that white people wouldn’t vote for me because I was black or because I was a Democrat."  -- Stacey Abrams.

Aptly titled, “A Conversation with Stacey Abrams,” the UNE event, despite drawing an impressive crowd of approximately 900 people, exuded a sense of intimacy. Skillfully guided by Johnson, the event began by Abrams shedding light on the tenets of her upbringing that spurred her into a life of politics. Raised in a “working poor” family, Abrams benefitted from two parents who were committed to uplifting others despite their meager financial means. Both were called into the Methodist ministry when Abrams was a teenager. “They raised us with this very strong ethic of education, faith, and service. And for them, those things were inextricably linked,” she stated. “You lived your faith through service; service was part of your responsibility; and education was the guarantee that you could be successful not only in your endeavors, but you could lift the capacity of others to be successful in theirs.” In short, she said her parents instilled the belief in Abrams and her five siblings that “having nothing was no excuse for doing nothing.”

Abrams, whose parents were both active as teenagers in the civil rights movement, described coming of age with a fascination in the role of government and with full confidence in the belief that the “guarantor of having a public sector that served was the right to vote.”

This fascination with and confidence in democracy propelled Abrams to the Georgia House of Representatives for 11 years, where she became minority leader after the first four. She described how, after setting her sights on the governorship, she knew that her campaign would have to deviate from the status quo. “In 2018, our campaign theory was this: You had to center communities of color, acknowledge their existence, and talk to them because there had been this premise that the only way to win elections was to win this narrow band of white swing voters – 150,000 of them,” she explained. “My goal was to center communities of color so they believed that this was actually an election they could participate in.”

Abrams described the importance of her campaign’s inclusivity and its goal of ensuring that her message reached all Georgia voters, no matter their demographic. “Just as we had, for so many years, candidates who eschewed talking to communities of color because they just presumed that they weren’t going to vote, I also had to push back against his notion that white people wouldn’t vote for me because I was black or because I was a Democrat,” she shared.

Abrams discussed the frustrations she faced when, in the three weeks leading up to the race with Kemp, 30,000 phone calls poured into her campaign – the first campaign to have a fulltime voter protection team – to report incidents of voter suppression. Thousands of Georgians were asserting that properly requested absentee ballots were never sent out or were rejected or that they had been purged from the voter rolls, often with no explanation.

My goal was to center communities of color so they believed that this was actually an election they could participate in." -- Stacey Abrams

With her opponent, Kemp, serving as the then-current Georgia Secretary of State, the very person responsible for overseeing the state’s election process, Abrams described a classic fox-guarding-the-hen-house scenario: “It’s like the New England Patriots letting Tom Brady be the referee,” she joked.

As the outcome of the election remained too close to call for 10 days while Abrams demanded that all votes be counted, frustrations only mounted in the Abrams camp as 40,000 additional reports of voter suppression came in. When all was said and done, a total of 80,000 calls about voter suppression activities, she said, had been fielded by her campaign.

Abrams acknowledged a brief period of mourning over the loss of the race but said that she soon channeled her disappointment in a positive direction. “If I was being honest with the people, then I was running not for the title but for the work, and so my job was to figure out what work could I do if I were not governor,” she recalled. “It would be a dereliction of duty for me to look them in the eye and say, ‘Because I didn’t win, this is over.’ … because the minute it becomes about me, people believe that it didn’t matter and they shouldn’t try again, and so my first response was to be honest and to be sincere and truthful to what I’d said, and that meant that I didn’t have the luxury of just walking away or curling into the fetal position … My job was to think about what else I could do… So Fair Fight became the mission.”

Voter suppression is administrative burdens that interfere with your right to vote and make you think that it’s your fault that didn’t get it done." -- Stacey Abrams

To clarify the goals of Fair Fight, Abrams provided the UNE audience with a description of voter suppression that was as simple to understand as it was shocking. She defined voter suppression as anything that inhibits one’s rights to register to vote and to stay on the rolls, to access one’s ballot, or to have one’s ballot actually be counted. She discussed limitations on third party registration, “exact match” rules, and the purging of voter names from the rosters that is allowed in some states when a citizen has not voted for a certain number of years. She also underscored the burden that hits low-income communities particularly hard when neighborhood polling places are shut down (requiring hourly workers to take time off from work to commute to more distant polls) and when provisional ballots are issued to “undesirable” voters, necessitating the extra step (and often the financial burden) of returning to the polls to cure their votes. In addition, she addressed voter ID laws that hide behind the façade of establishing identity when, in fact, they are created to “narrow the filter of what qualifies as identification so tightly that no one can fit through the sieve.”

“Voter suppression is administrative burdens that interfere with your right to vote and make you think that it’s your fault that didn’t get it done,” Abrams flatly stated.

At the close of the event, Abrams took questions from the audience and tied some of the answers back to the man whose legacy she was at UNE to help celebrate: Martin Luther King Jr. She rejected the notion that King’s “I Have a Dream” speech expressed a desire for people’s character to be judged without regard for their identity. “Identity matters,” she stated. “In America’s our experiences are shaped by our identities … What you see [when you look at a person] tells you a story, and it’s disingenuous to pretend it doesn’t. Our responsibility … is to understand how people are shaped by what we see but that we also explore more deeply how they’ve lived that life based on who they are. That’s what character is.”

In response to a student who asked how white people can use their privilege to assist in centralizing people of color, Abrams’ lifelong belief in service was again revealed. “We don’t have to have shared histories or even shared futures to have a shared need, and we need our democracy to work … If you have privilege, it is your job to use that privilege for those who don’t know they have power,” she said. “And if you’re willing to do that, Dr. King’s life will have been not in vain but in testament to who we can be.”

Watch the event

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