How Stacey Abrams became the 'architect' of Biden's Georgia surge

Jon Ward
·Senior Political Correspondent
·8 min read

WASHINGTON — Turning Georgia purple didn’t happen overnight.

Joe Biden, if he retains his slim lead, will be the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the Peach State since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Biden smashed turnout records for Democrats in Georgia, getting over 2.4 million votes, up from less than 1.9 million for Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Biden increased the Democratic Party’s vote share in the state by over 571,000, more than Barack Obama did in the 2008 election, when he got 478,000 more votes than Democrat John Kerry in 2004.

This massive increase in Georgia’s Democratic vote came from a few things: population growth, the implementation of automatic voter registration in 2016, and Stacey Abrams’s organizing work over the past decade.

“Stacey is the architect of how we are where we are in Georgia,” said DuBose Porter, who was chairman of the Georgia Democratic Party during the years that Abrams was beginning her push nearly a decade ago to start registering more voters in the state.

For years, many Democrats have spoken of growing diversity in states like Texas, hoping it might lead to a political shift. But competitiveness in the Lone Star State has eluded the Democrats, while Georgia is now firmly in swing state territory. The Georgia story shows the importance of on-the-ground organizing, building durable institutions and the kind of leadership provided by a figure like Abrams.

The fact that Biden now may win the state also puts a new shine on the battle for control of the Senate, where Democrats would have to win a pair of runoff elections that are now set for Jan. 5, which would produce a 50-50 tie in the Senate, making a Democratic vice president the tie-breaking vote and giving their party the majority. Skepticism will remain that Democrats can turn out in the same numbers for an early January runoff as they did in a presidential election, but the fact that they may have won the state on election night will electrify these Senate races.

Stacey Abrams speaks at a podium at a Biden/Harris rally
Voting rights activist and politician Stacey Abrams speaks at a drive-in rally to get out the vote on Monday in Atlanta. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Voting overall has gone way up in Georgia over the last decade among both Republicans and Democrats. A total of 3.9 million Georgians voted in the 2012 presidential election; eight years later, about a million more people cast ballots.

Democrats have become more competitive even as Republican voting has skyrocketed as well.

Population growth, which has been booming in Georgia for a long time, has fueled this increase in voters. The state gained roughly 1 million people over the last decade, on top of the 1.5 million added the decade before that.

Georgia has become more racially diverse, and younger, as a result. That shift has affected the voting universe as well. There’s been a 68 percent increase in voters under 35 over the past four years, while the group of over-65-year-olds has not grown at all during that time, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Part of Democratic gains is also likely from the implementation of automatic voter registration in 2016, which meant that any state resident who receives or updates their driver’s license is automatically registered as a voter unless they opt not to be. That move dramatically increased registration numbers in the state, according to the Brennan Center for Justice, a voting rights group at New York University.

But without Abrams and the work she has spearheaded, all of that would not likely have added up to a situation where a Democratic presidential candidate was in position to win Georgia in 2020.

Abrams began working to register new Democratic voters ahead of the 2014 election, when she was the Democratic leader in the Georgia House of Representatives.

In an interview in 2014, she said that many Black voters did not believe that voting was worth their time, for a few reasons. There’s the history of voter suppression against Blacks in the South, which still rears its head openly in some places, as Yahoo News’ investigation into the story of the Quitman 10+2 showed.

But many people she talked to had been disappointed that their access to health care had not improved after Obama was elected president. Georgians spoke with her about the closure of rural hospitals, and many were confused as to why Medicaid expansion had not taken place.

“What we ended up telling a lot of people is, you’re not going to be able to qualify for the Medicaid expansion because Georgia said no. And over and over again, people would say, ‘Well, how do they get to decide that?’” Abrams said. “And so many of those folks were not registered to vote, and had no idea that the governor had that kind of power.

“And what we would get back is, ‘Well, President Obama said we could have it.’ I said, ‘Yes, but President Obama is not the president of Georgia. ... The governor has the authority, and he said no,’” Abrams said. “The more we talked, the more I realized the disconnect was really based on a lack of civic understanding.”

An election worker wearing a face mask examines ballots
An election worker examines ballots as vote counting proceeds at State Farm Arena in Atlanta. (AP/Brynn Anderson)

And so Abrams fought a battle on two fronts, educating voters and “giving them a way to believe again,” Porter, the state’s former Democratic Party chairman, said, while also building an organization aimed at registering thousands of new voters. Abrams set a goal: 800,000 new minority voters over the next six years, by 2020.

“There are nearly a million people who need to be registered to vote, and I don’t intend to stop registering them,” she said at the time.

Between 2016 and 2020 there were 1 million new voters registered, and about two-thirds of them were people of color, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported last month.

Abrams’s work to increase minority participation in Georgia put her on a collision course with Brian Kemp, who had become Georgia’s secretary of state in 2010. In 2014 Abrams accused Kemp of failing to register about half of the 87,000 new voters that her group at the time, the New Georgia Project, had signed up. In return, Kemp used his powers as secretary of state to investigate Abrams’s group, but found no evidence of wrongdoing.

Abrams increasingly focused on what she saw as Kemp’s attempts to suppress the vote. Kemp removed 1.5 million voters from Georgia’s rolls between 2012 and 2016, the Brennan Center said, many times simply for failing to vote in the most recent elections. He used a policy called “exact match,” which put voter registrations in limbo for what critics said were minor issues, such as punctuation, that affected minority voters in disproportionate numbers.

Critics also said that long lines at many polling places in recent elections, which occurred in majority Black urban areas, were the result of a lack of resources and training from Kemp’s office of the secretary of state.

Kemp has pointed to increases in voter registration among Democrats as evidence that he did not suppress the vote. Abrams has said the Democratic vote would have grown by more if not for Kemp’s actions.

Protesters hold signs that read "Stop the steal," "Promises kept" and "Trump Pence"
Protesters outside the State Farm Arena, where Fulton County has a vote counting operation. (AP/John Bazemore)

Then in 2018, Kemp ran for governor of Georgia but also remained in his position as the top state official responsible for overseeing the election in which he himself was a candidate. Abrams launched a campaign to take him on.

Abrams won more votes than any Democrat in Georgia history, including presidential candidates, with over 1.9 million votes. But with President Trump’s help, Kemp got 55,000 more votes and was declared the winner.

Abrams made the controversial decision not to concede the race. “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,” Abrams said on Nov. 16, 2018. “So, to be clear, this is not a speech of concession. Concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede. But my assessment is that the law currently allows no further viable remedy.”

The battle of the 2018 election left a mark on the Georgia electorate. Rev. Raphael Warnock, the pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church, had predicted in a 2014 interview that Kemp’s actions would motivate Democrats and minority voters to work harder.

“We hate what he’s doing, but at the end of the day, he may have done us a favor,” said Warnock, who is currently the Democratic Party’s nominee for the U.S. Senate and is headed for a Jan. 5 runoff against Republican incumbent Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

It’s quite likely that now Abrams will be primed to challenge Kemp for governor in 2022, in a rematch that will draw incredible attention and resources.

“I think she really would like to be governor of Georgia, but you have to ask her,” Porter said.

Cover thumbnail photo: Ethan Miller/Getty Images

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