VOICES: 'The cure to this malpractice is a fight for fairness'
On Nov. 16, Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams delivered a speech acknowledging that, after a hard-fought race plagued with voting problems, Republican former Secretary of State Brian Kemp would be the state's next governor. But she refused to call the speech a concession because, she said, that "means to acknowledge an action is right, true, or proper." Abrams also announced plans for a lawsuit over election misadministration under Kemp's watch and the launch of a new group called Fair Fight Georgia to work for electoral integrity in the state. The following is a transcript of her speech as delivered. Watch the full address here.
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On Sept. 18, thousands of Georgians began casting absentee ballots, determined to lift their voices in the democratic process of electing our leaders for the next two years, the next four years. A few weeks later, more than 2 million Georgians declared their choices, heading to polling places for early votes. And then on Nov. 6, more than a million folks arrived in precincts around our beloved state, anxious and excited to express their patriotism through the fundamental act of voting.
For these millions of Georgians, the act may have proven tedious and hard, but they had no doubts their votes would be counted. Certainly, there would be long lines and delays. Absolutely, a tired volunteer would mistype a name. And nature would not be ignored through rain or tornado warnings or chilly weather.
We all understand the challenges and complications. However, this year, more than 200 years into Georgia's democratic experiment, the state failed its voters. You see, despite a record high population in Georgia, more than a million citizens found their names stripped from the rolls by the secretary of state, including a 92 year-old civil rights activist who had cast her ballot in the same neighborhood since 1968. Tens of thousands hung in limbo, rejected due to human error and a system of suppression that had already proven its bias. The remedy, they were told, was simply to show up — only they, like thousands of others, found polling places shut down, understaffed, ill-equipped, or simply unable to serve its basic function for lack of a power cord.
Students drove hours to hometowns to cast votes because mismanagement prevented absentee ballots from arriving on time. Parents stood in the fitful rain in 4-hour lines, watching as less fortunate voters had to abandon democracy in favor of keeping their jobs and collecting a paycheck. Eligible voters were refused ballots because poll workers didn't think they had enough paper to go around. Ballots were rejected by the handwriting police. Citizens tried to exercise their constitutional rights and were still denied the ability to elect their leaders. Under the watch of the now former secretary of state, democracy failed Georgia — Georgians of every political party, every race, every region. Again.
You see, the incompetence and mismanagement we witnessed in this election had been on display months before in the Republican state legislative primary of Dan Gasaway. Counties under the direction of the secretary of state issued flawed ballots — and not for the first time, and not just in that district. But this time the mistakes clearly altered the outcome. Rep. Gasaway, a Republican in a heavily Republican district, had to go to court to force a fair fight. And therefore, on Dec. 4, tucked between the runoffs for secretary of state and the Public Service Commission, for one community, there will be justice in the process. Win or lose, the people in his district will finally have a say.
Many of the same Republicans cheered on Rep. Gasaway when he filed his lawsuit. But the same ones have grumbled about the time we have taken to gain a remedy for fellow Georgians who faced a dizzying array of bad action, misinformation, and gut-wrenching hardship.
But we are a mighty nation because embedded in our national experiment is the chance to fix what is broken. To call out what has faltered. To demand fairness wherever it can be found. Which is why, on Election Night, I declared that our fight to count every vote is not about me. It is about us. It is about the democracy that we share and our responsibility to preserve our way of life. Our democracy — because voting is not a right for some. It is a right for all. And it is not a privilege.
I stand here today as witness to that truth. This election is about all of us — as is the resolution of this moment.
I acknowledge that former Secretary of State Brian Kemp will be certified as the victor in the 2018 gubernatorial election.
But to watch an elected official who claims to represent the people in this state baldly pin his hopes for election on the suppression of the people's democratic right to vote has been truly appalling. So let's be clear: This is not a speech of concession.
Because concession means to acknowledge an action is right, true, or proper. As a woman of conscience and faith, I cannot concede that. But my assessment is the law currently allows no further viable remedy.
Now, I could certainly bring a new case to keep this one contest alive, but I don't want to hold public office if I need to scheme my way into the post. Because the title of governor isn't nearly as important as our shared title: voters.
And that is why we fight on and why I want to say thank you. Thank you to those of you who organized your communities and shattered records – more than 1.9 million voters who stood up in this midterm for protecting our public schools, for continuing criminal justice reform, for Medicaid expansion, and for real economic mobility for all of our counties. We won state House races and Senate races, a new seat in Congress, and we put America on notice that change is not coming to Georgia – it has arrived. And you made it so.
But those who fear change pushed back, and so we waited for the whole truth of this election – good and evil. We waited for it to come forth. So thank you to those of you who shared your stories, for the tens of thousands of calls into our voter protection line. Thank you for volunteering your hours after the polls closed and for the last 10 days. For driving to all 159 counties and hearing the concerns of Georgia citizens, through tears and frustration and disappointment.
Because you see, Georgia still has a decision to make about who will we be in the next election. And the one after that. And the one after that. So we have used this election and its aftermath to diagnose what has been broken in our process.
Make no mistake, the former secretary of state was deliberate and intentional in his actions. I know that eight years of systemic disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and incompetence had its desired effect on the electoral process in Georgia.
I also know that we live in a nation where four federal judges were necessary to force the counting of the ballots cast, in the face of Brian Kemp's opposition to and disregard for their lawful consideration.
I know that millions of Georgians, of Americans, of goodwill and various partisan beliefs – they are enraged by these truths. Now, in response you may seek to vent your anger, or worse, to turn away from politics because it can be as rotten and rigged as you've always believed.
But I implore each of you not to give in to that anger or apathy but instead turn to action. Because the antidote to injustice is progress. The cure to this malpractice is a fight for fairness in every election held, in every law passed, in every decision made.
Pundits and hyper-partisans will hear my words as a rejection of the normal order. You see, I'm supposed to say nice things and accept my fate. They will complain that I should not use this moment to recap what was done wrong or to demand a remedy. You see, as a leader I should be stoic in my outrage and silent in my rebuke.
But stoicism is a luxury, and silence is a weapon for those who would quiet the voices of the people. And I will not concede because the erosion of our democracy is not right.
Regardless of party, we want what is best for our children, for our families, for our neighborhoods. We may not share the same faith, but we are knitted together by our belief in our potential for more. I will work in these coming weeks to elect John Barrow as our next secretary of state because he is a man of principle and goodwill who will administer his responsibilities for the people, and not his party. I will work to elect Lindy Miller as our next Public Service commissioner, where she will speak for those who have been ignored for too long.
And I will pray for the success of Brian Kemp, that he will indeed be a leader for all Georgians. That he will pledge to fight for the rights of those who disagree with him and that he will keep his promises. That he will refuse the call of those who see how close this election really was. Because we know that some are going to propose to make voting even harder. They see voter engagement in communities of color and they cry fraud, or they lie about the cost of democracy to justify closing more polling places. I pray he will reject this vicious and tired response in favor of preserving what is left of our state's reputation for equality and civil rights.
But I will not leave it to prayers alone. As I have for more than 25 years, I will stand with my fellow Georgians in pursuit of fairness. You see, I did so as a college student speaking in the shadow of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. at the 30th anniversary of the March on Washington. I did so as Democratic leader of the House of Representatives, and as the Democratic nominee for governor of Georgia. And now I will do so as a private citizen, ready to continue to defend those whose choices were denied full expression.
Today, I announce the launch of Fair Fight Georgia, an operation that will pursue accountability in Georgia's elections and integrity in the process of maintaining our voting rolls. In the coming days, we will be filing a major federal lawsuit against the state of Georgia for the gross mismanagement of this election and to protect future elections from unconstitutional actions.
We will channel the work of the past several weeks into a strong legal demand for reform of our elections systems in Georgia. And I will not waver in my commitment, a lived commitment, to work across party lines and across divisions to find a common purpose in protecting our democracy. Because we deserve a state that elects Democrats and Republicans and Independents. We deserve a state that elects leaders who will not tolerate the erosion of our values.
Fair Fight Georgia. Because these votes are our voices. And we are entitled to our choices, each of us. And we have always been, Georgia, been at the forefront of speaking truth to whatever power may lay claim to leadership – if only for a moment. And we will win because we are Georgia.
And I promise you – we will get it done.
Stacey Abrams is an attorney, novelist, and longtime voting rights activist in Georgia. The former state House minority leader, she was the 2018 Democratic nominee for governor — the first black woman to be a major-party gubernatorial nominee in U.S. history.