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Stacey Abrams Talks New 2020 Voter Protection Initiative


You may have been following the Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who's been a Democratic Party favorite since she came close to becoming the nation's first African American female governor last year and gave a well-received response to the State of the Union. Many have been wondering what she'll do next.

She announced this week that she will not run for the Senate or the presidency, as some in her party had hoped. Instead, she unveiled a national initiative called Fair Fight 2020. Abrams said the project is intended to combat what she called voter suppression across 20 competitive and battleground states. The initiative will also focus on boosting involvement in the 2020 census. And Stacey Abrams is with us now.

Thank you so much for being here.

STACEY ABRAMS: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So, first of all, let's review why the issue of voting rights is so central to you. You ran for governor in 2018 against Republican Brian Kemp, who oversaw the election as secretary of state and was accused of suppressing minority votes. If you could just give us a couple of examples of why you say this was voter suppression - because, as you know, Republicans say this is about voter integrity and that they say they just want to be sure that the votes of legitimate voters aren't diluted by those who are actually ineligible. So why do you call this voter suppression?

ABRAMS: Because voters in Georgia had a difficult time getting on the rolls, staying on the rolls, casting their ballots and having their ballots counted. In the 10-day period between election night and the night I gave my non-concession speech but acknowledged his - that he'd won the election, we had four lawsuits that found that he had illegally and unlawfully led the state to dismiss provisional ballots, to dismiss signatures on absentee ballots. He, by his own admission, purged 670,000 voters in 2017 in a single day. And we know for a fact that a number of those voters purged should not have been taken off of the rolls.

Any one of those individual actions is problematic, but when they are tied together in a system of voter suppression, the effect is that people are disenfranchised. And while Georgia is a singular example of having the umpire also be the one at bat, we know that this isn't endemic only to Georgia.

MARTIN: So give us an example of what this organization, Fair Fight 2020, can do or intends to do that existing organizations aren't doing.

ABRAMS: So let's say that you're in Michigan, where you now have new laws on the books that allow same-day registration, automatic registration. We know that there are reports that some Republican county registrars do not want to implement those laws. We're going to be funding staff, full-time staff in Michigan that works with the state party to ensure that across the state, anyone who wants to take advantage of these new rules can do so.

If you're in a state like North Carolina, where we have seen voter suppression and election fraud happen, we want to make sure there are poll observers who have already been trained. By getting this in place early, they can go through the primary process in 2020, and we will know where we need more poll observers, where people need better training. And by having full-time, fully paid staff early, we will be able to scale these operations in every one of those states.

MARTIN: The landscape around voting rights has changed - let's say the legal landscape has changed significantly since Shelby v. Holder in 2013 invalidated a key portion of the Voting Rights Act that had required states with a history of discrimination to have new voting laws approved before those laws took effect. And, of course, that went away, as I said, in sort of 2013. But the predicate of that decision was that this isn't necessary - you know, that African Americans and minorities are sufficiently rooted in sort of political structures in these states that this preclearance is not necessary, burdensome and unfair. And, you know, it is the law. But what do you say to those who just say that this is, I think, sour grapes?

ABRAMS: It's not sour grapes. It's proof. We know by empirical evidence that the absence of the preclearance process has allowed states that are governed primarily by Republicans to impose tighter restrictions that have not improved voter integrity but have had the direct effect of voter suppression. That is wrong and should not happen in the United States.

MARTIN: So to that end, though, some argue, well, the best way to address this is by taking over the Senate and the presidency. And many people were urging you to run either for the Senate to help the Democrats take it back over or for the presidency. You decided to do this instead. And I know that you've talked to a lot of people about this, but can we just ask you why?

ABRAMS: I think the Senate is critically important. I do not want to be a senator. I think you - I think it's dangerous for politicians to run for offices simply because they're open. You want people to run for those offices because they want to do that job. I do not want to do the job of senator. But I'm also not so arrogant as to believe I'm the only person in Georgia who can win that race. I do not want to run for president at this time because I think we have an extraordinary crop of candidates who have incredibly important ideas to promote.

And my best value add is to make certain that Georgia's treated as a battleground state by the Senate and the presidency so we can get a new U.S. senator from the state of Georgia, we can deliver 16 electoral votes to the president and we can make certain that no matter where you are across this country, Fair Fight 2020 is making certain that you have the protection of your vote and the right to cast your ballot.

MARTIN: And before we let you go, you've said in interviews this week that you would be open to serving as a running mate to a presidential nominee, Democratic presidential nominee. I know it's awkward...

ABRAMS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: But do you have a short list of candidates whose ticket you'd be willing to join?

ABRAMS: I am excited about everyone who's running. I think we have an excellent crop of candidates. And I - again, it's hubris to say I should have a job, but it would be stupid to say I wouldn't want that job. And so if anyone - if the person who crosses the finish line and becomes the Democratic nominee chooses to invite me to join, I would be honored to do so. But for now, my responsibility is at, making sure that no matter who our nominee is, that the right to vote is protected in our country.

MARTIN: That was Stacey Abrams. She served in the Georgia House of Representatives, seven years of that time as minority leader. She was the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia, and she is the author of her memoir, "Lead From The Outside."

Stacey Abrams, thank you so much for joining us.

ABRAMS: This has been delightful. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.