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Stacey Abrams' run for Georgia governor will test GOP voter suppression

Can you "out-organize" voter suppression? The White House thinks so — and we're about to find out.

Georgia is once again going to be on everyone’s mind next year: Democrat Stacey Abrams announced Wednesday that she’s running for governor, setting up a likely rematch with Republican Gov. Brian Kemp.

Even if Abrams hadn’t decided to give it another shot, the Georgia election would likely be one of the marquee races of the year, with a Senate majority on the line. But her entry has made what would otherwise be just one campaign in many into a key test of one of the biggest gambles of President Joe Biden’s presidency. In Abrams’ run, we’ll have a real-time test of whether Republican efforts to block voters from the polls can be overcome without federal intervention.

Abrams only narrowly lost to Kemp in 2018, with less than 2 percentage points separating them. Since then, she’s been focused on protecting voting rights and expanding access to the polls for voters. Her efforts, alongside other organizers who’ve been putting in the work for years, helped turn the state blue, delivering control of the White House and Senate to Democrats.

Kemp and Georgia’s GOP-dominated Legislature have made a win for Abrams even more of an uphill climb.

Since then, though, Kemp and Georgia’s GOP-dominated Legislature have made a win for Abrams even more of an uphill climb. In March, Georgia became one of 19 states so far this year to enact new election laws restricting voters’ ability to cast their ballots, according to the Brennan Center for Justice. (Georgia’s law also made it easier for the Legislature to take over local election boards, raising the possibility of Republicans manipulating the outcomes of races.)

In testimony before the Senate Judiciary Committee in April, Abrams was asked to list her issues with the bill. She delivered, rattling off a litany of problems from the reduction in hours that drop boxes can be used to turn in ballots to basically banning nearly all provisional out-of-precinct votes cast.

The Justice Department announced in June it was filing a lawsuit to challenge Georgia’s law in federal court for violating the Voting Rights Act. But Biden’s White House has been rather cool on the idea that new federal legislation like the Freedom to Vote Act is a requirement to roll back these changes. Here’s how The Atlantic’s Ronald Brownstein described the vibe there in May when speaking with a senior White House official:

The senior official noted that the Biden campaign repeatedly adjusted its tactics as the electoral rules changed throughout the 2020 election, and that Biden ultimately won more votes than any president in either party ever has. Looking ahead to 2022 and 2024, “I think our feeling is, show us what the rules are and we will figure out a way to educate our voters and make sure they understand how they can vote and we will get them out to vote,” the official told me. Through on-the-ground organizing, “there are work-arounds to some of these provisions,” said a senior Democrat familiar with White House thinking, who also spoke with me on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations.

The idea that classic tactics like get-out-the-vote campaigns and canvassing can overcome the election law changes being put into place is one the White House also repeated to voting rights advocacy groups and civil rights organizations, The New York Times reported in August. That suggestion, as you probably could guess, did not exactly thrill said groups.

“We cannot out-organize voter suppression,” Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, told Vanity Fair in August. “We organized in November to put people in office to address the issue of voter suppression. We did not organize in November to let elected officials off the hook to organize again and overcome a new hurdle. Voters did their job as citizens, and now they’re simply asking elected officials to do their job to protect our right to vote.”

There’s evidence that the efforts the White House is describing can work, as HuffPost’s Paul Blumenthal reported, who noted a “handful of studies show that voters respond to news that their demographic group is targeted by an attempt to suppress their votes with anger and countermobilization.” But the efforts that go into that work are extremely time-consuming and costly. So far, the White House has pledged $25 million to help bolster those kinds of efforts — but given the breadth of the attack on democracy at play, that hardly feels like enough.

Abrams’ own organization has already begun doing that sort of work in Georgia. Fair Fight Action’s, launched in June, lets voters check whether they’re one of the more than 100,000 who might be purged from voting rolls under the new law’s restrictions. The group would also “attempt to reach 50,000 voters through a text and phone bank campaign later this summer, alerting voters of the coming purge and educating previously purged voters about how they can re-register,” The 19th’s Errin Haines reported at the time.

As things stand, Abrams’ campaign will have to operate entirely within the framework that Georgia’s new law erected

There’s still the slimmest of chances that Senate Democrats move to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and/or the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, either altering or eliminating the filibuster in the process. But given the ongoing refusal of two senators in particular to approve any changes to the filibuster, that doesn’t seem like a safe bet. There’s also the possibility that the DOJ prevails in its lawsuit against Georgia, a prospect made less likely following the Supreme Court’s July decision to whittle the Voting Rights Act’s scope even further.

As things stand, Abrams’ campaign will have to operate entirely within the framework that Georgia’s new law erected. Accordingly, her race will be a determinant of whether the White House’s view is correct and that the new changes won’t advantage Republicans as much as is feared. That shouldn’t worry Abrams specifically — after all, if there’s anyone who can out-organize voter suppression, it’s her.

But that’s the problem with the White House’s thinking. For every race like Abrams’, one likely able to find the time and resources to counter the GOP’s suppression, there are dozens of other races where voters will feel the full brunt of Republican efforts. An Abrams win may wind up a data point in the White House’s favor, but the rest of the country likely wouldn’t be so lucky.