A few dozen volunteers are spending a Saturday morning in a hotel conference room in Macon, Ga., for a boot camp of sorts on fighting voter suppression.
“We are walking into a year that’s going to be exciting, a little bit stressful,” explains Hillary Holley, organizing director for Fair Fight Action. The group is waging a campaign against voter suppression in the 2020 election.
“We’re gonna be working a lot, but we’re ready for it,” she says.
Fair Fight is spearheaded by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who gained national attention in 2018 after losing a close race for governor in an election clouded by allegations of voter suppression.
“This is not a speech of concession,” she said at the time, after losing by fewer than 55,000 votes to Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp. “Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper.”
Abrams, a former minority leader in the Georgia House, broke new ground with her gubernatorial campaign, driving up the share of Democratic voters in a state where Republicans have dominated.
There was record turnout for a midterm election but also hours-long waits at some polls, election server security breaches and allegations that strict adherence on signature matches dampened participation.
Abrams says the defeat galvanized her to launch Fair Fight.
“In the wake of the election, my mission was to figure out what work could I do, even if I didn’t have the title of governor,” Abrams says. “What work could I do to enhance or protect our democracy? Because voting rights is the pinnacle of power in our country.”
Participants at the Fair Fight voter suppression workshop call themselves Democracy Warriors.
“Every single vote counts,” says Elaine Morgan Johnson, a poll worker from Macon.
She’s motivated to be here in part because her sister was removed from Georgia’s voter rolls under a mass purge of people who had not voted since 2012 or responded to mailed notices from election officials.
Johnson thinks it’s part of a broader strategy to curtail voting rights.
“Reducing their opposition; don’t want to lose power,” Johnson says. “It’s depressing. And that’s why I’m just trying to be active in any way that I can. My parents worked for civil rights. And we’re not for going backwards.”
Fair Fight is training grassroots advocates such as Johnson, lobbying for new election laws and arguing in federal court that Georgia’s election system is unconstitutional. Abrams says long lines, precinct closures and purging voter rolls are all barriers that disproportionately impact minority voters.
“Most of us understand voter suppression as the 1960s images of billy clubs and hoses and dogs barking — aggressive interference,” Abrams says. “But in the 21st century, voter suppression looks like administrative errors. It looks like user error. It looks like mistakes. But it is just as intentional and just as insidious.”
Georgia’s current secretary of state, Republican Brad Raffensperger, acknowledges that there were some problems because of the high voter turnout in 2018. And he’s urging election administrators to be ready for even higher turnout this year with the presidential election and what’s expected to be a hotly contested Senate race in Georgia.
“No one wants to stand in line for, you know, 30 minutes, an hour. Things like that,” says Raffensperger. “So we want our election officials to be prepared for big turnout.”
He rejects the notion that cleaning up voter rolls is an attempt to gain partisan advantage.
“No, what we’re trying to do is make sure that the elections are clean, fair and accurate,” Raffensperger says. “This is something that has been going on in Georgia long before Republicans were in charge in Georgia.”
And courts have upheld the state’s authority to purge the voter lists after Fair Fight sued, but other election-related lawsuits are pending.
“Georgia is ground zero for election law,” says attorney Jake Evans, chairman of the Georgia chapter of the Republican National Lawyers Association.
Evans says the focus is here because Georgia is becoming competitive.
“The reality is, you know, Georgia is changing, and there’s a lot of transplants coming in from the West Coast and in the Northeast. And there’s also a changing demographic,” Evans says. “So I think it is time for Republicans to grow the tent. But I definitely think it’s woke up a lot of Republicans in Georgia.”
He says Abrams’ success is drawing attention.
“It is undoubtably providing her a stream of relevancy,” Evans says. “I think she really believes voter suppression is happening and going on. Knowing the people in the secretary of state’s office, I just don’t, I don’t think that’s true.”
Now Abrams is expanding Fair Fight’s reach in hopes of putting other states in play for Democrats.
“I believe when there is a fair fight, when people are not only given the ostensible right to vote, but the right to vote is made real, we will win more and more elections,” Abrams says.
She recently traveled to Florida for a town hall with college students to talk about ways they could protect their vote — from verifying voter registration to learning how to ask for a provisional ballot if you’re turned away at the polls.
Political scientist Andra Gillespie of Emory University says a lot of national groups are doing voting rights work, but Fair Fight stands out because it has been able to use the energy around Abram’s electoral defeat to try to reap benefits for other Democrats in this election cycle.
“Her story was compelling. She got a lot of attention by being the first black woman to be nominated by a major party for a gubernatorial seat,” Gillespie says. “She was really smart and, you know, struck while the iron was hot in order to put that type of organization together.”
Fair Fight’s political action committee is raising millions of dollars, including a $5 million contribution from Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.
And it’s pumping some of that money into battleground states early. Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo says the idea is to beef up the Democratic ground game around voting.
“We are in the mission of making sure our full citizenry can vote,” Groh-Wargo says. “We also happen to think that when all Americans are able to vote, Democrats win.”
She says they’ve invested more than $1 million and sent dozens of staffers into 18 states to ramp up Democratic voting rights infrastructure — things such as establishing voter hotlines and creating voter protection teams to be in place for the primaries so they can prepare for the general election.
“Gathering information and data. What do voters struggle with? What do election administrators struggle with? What support are they going to need?” she explains. “All of that learning was why we were so eager to make sure there were folks on the ground in advance of the primaries.”
Critics say Fair Fight is a vehicle for Abrams’ political aspirations. She counters that she has been doing civil rights work her entire career but acknowledges her interest in higher office, including the presidency.
“I see myself as a warrior for democracy,” Abrams says. “But I’m also someone who has been training my entire life to do more.”
As for this year’s race, Abrams hasn’t endorsed any of the Democratic presidential candidates but says she’ll welcome a phone call from the eventual nominee when that person is looking for a running mate.