As the Democratic debate draws attention to Georgia, Stacey Abrams fights for voters' rights

The former candidate for governor spoke to NBC News about her efforts before the MSNBC/Washington Post Democratic debate on Wednesday.
Image: Stacey Abrams at the Elevator Factory in Atlanta on Feb. 26, 2019.
Stacey Abrams, in Atlanta in February. After losing the Georgia governor's race last year, she founded Fair Fight to educate voters about their rights and fight voter suppression.Johnathon Kelso / NYT via Redux file

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By Caitlin Fichtel

Stacey Abrams won't be on the debate stage when the Democratic presidential candidates face off in Atlanta on Wednesday, but that doesn't mean she won't be playing a role in the 2020 elections.

Since Abrams' loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the Georgia governor's race last year, she's worked to combat voter suppression, which Abrams alleges cost her the race. Ahead of the presidential election next year, Abrams is using her political action committee, Fair Fight, to repair what she believes to be a broken voting system in her state.

"My reaction to the mismanagement and the malfeasance was to think about what could I do, not simply about my election, because that was over, but what work could I still do that would address the challenges that so many Georgians faced in that process?" Abrams told NBC News.

She launched Fair Fight to educate voters about their rights. It's an effort focused on making it easier for youth and minority groups to vote and, ultimately, Fair Fight organizers hope the participation of these groups will help elect a Democratic president next November.

"We want to ensure that every voter who has the right to vote in Georgia has the ability to leverage that right. That means: 'Can they register and stay on the rolls? Can they cast a ballot? And can that ballot be counted?'" Abrams said.

In Georgia, state officials announced ahead of the 2020 election that they will be removing about 315,000 eligible voters from the rolls due to inactivity, about 4 percent of registered voters in the state, according to the secretary of state’s office.

This trend can also be found nationwide. About 17 million voters were purged nationwide from voter registration rolls from 2016 to 2018, according to June data released by the Federal Election Assistance Commission.

Abrams said that during the 2018 election, youth and minority voters faced challenges while trying to vote. That included, she said, the closing of polling locations where they feel comfortable voting such as museums and moving them to police departments; not being registered due to voter roll purges; and absentee ballot miscounting. Kemp and his campaign denied intentional voter suppression after the election.

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Abrams, who has previously toyed with the idea of running for the Senate and the presidency, said she plans to attend MSNBC's debate on Wednesday night at the Tyler Perry Studios in Atlanta.

"We've been lobbying very hard for Georgia to be an instrumental part … and to be seen as the battleground state that we are," Abrams said.

A poll conducted by NBC News/Survey Monkey in July 2019 found that in Georgia less than half of those surveyed, 48 percent, approved of the job President Donald Trump was doing. Since 1992, Georgia has swung red in presidential elections. However, data collected by Fair Fight shows that many of the newly registered voters who chose to identify their race on their registration forms over the past 11 months are minorities or under 30, two groups that tend to vote Democratic.

"More than 300,000 voters have registered for the first time from Election Day 2018 until mid-August 2019. Of those new voters, 47 percent are minorities and 45 percent are under the age of 30," according to Fair Fight CEO Lauren Groh-Wargo.

Fair Fight organized a group called Fair Fight U that targets college campuses around Georgia to encourage students to vote — a demographic that tends to not have a high participation rate in elections.

Emma Morris, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Georgia and the chapter manager for Fair Fight U on the school's campus, got involved with the organization after she said many of her friends were prevented from voting in 2018 due to canceled voter registrations and unprocessed absentee ballots.

Morris said she is working with Fair Fight to prevent those issues from happening again and to "ensure a fair election."

Fair Fight also has expanded its reach from the campus to young voter organizations.

Melissa Wolfe, a sophomore at Valdosta State in Georgia, is an active member of the Young Democrats of Georgia, which works with the state Democratic Party.

Wolfe said that with the help of the ACLU, the organization secured a polling location on campus — one that falls in Lowndes County, an area that typically favors Republican candidates.

"Kids will be able to vote. They won't have to walk two miles to an unsafe area where there's limited public transportation," Wolfe said.

Another issue voters in the state face is "purging" from the voter registration rolls, which removes people who are inactive for several years.

"We think it's unlawful that you lose your right to vote simply because you don’t use it," Abrams said.

Bianca Keaton, the Gwinnett County Democratic Party chair, is working with Fair Fight's Democracy Warriors to limit voter purging.

Keaton said she encourages minority voters who have not actively voted in recent years to check their status regularly by looking online.

Fair Fight is also working to make sure absentee ballots are counted, and Abrams wants residents to feel confident those votes will be counted during the 2020 race. In the meantime, Abrams is expanding Fair Fight beyond Georgia, as she tailors programs in swing states, including Florida, Ohio and Pennsylvania, in the hopes of eliminating voter suppression.

"We want to make certain that the very effective and very efficient process remains open to as many people as possible," she said. "We have a changing electorate and we're going to be working hard to make certain they know their rights and they are able to execute those rights and participate in the 2020 election."