DEFENDERS OF DEMOCRACY

Lessons from Georgia − Stacey Abrams shows us how to empower voters for a fair fight

Stacey Abrams campaigning in 2018.
Stacey Abrams campaigning in 2018. Photo credit: The Circus, licensed under CC BY 3.0

At a time when parliamentary democracy is under threat as never before, those few courageous voices in the media and in public life who are prepared to come forward and expose corruption, wrong-doing and lying sometimes appear to be the only upholders of our democratic system. This is the sixth in a series of articles that profiles some of the key figures in the fight for right over might.

As the Democrats in Georgia took two crucial Senate seats in the USA, there is one woman who is credited with making this happen. As the results were announced Stacey Abrams said “across our state we roared”. She and her team campaigned effectively to get people out to vote. They have led a 10-year campaign to flip the state of Georgia to the Democrats for the first time in 20 years, and we have much to learn from the campaign and her and her team’s success.

She has not been alone in this work and she always points this out. She has been working for over 15 years with Nse Ufot, LaTosha Brown, Tameika Atkins, Helen Butler, Cliff Albright, Deborah Scott, and Rebecca DeHart and her Fair Fight Action group.

They showed people that their vote matters and that they have the power to make a difference.

Her emphatic campaigning that “your vote has the power to determine the future of Georgia and our country” was in itself not the only thing that drives this result. Across Georgia there has been grassroots campaigning for years, dominated by many women of colour. Kamala Harris commented that minority women are “too often, overlooked but so often prove that they are the backbone of our democracy”. They have worked hard to make sure people registered to vote and turned out to vote. Two years ahead of the 2020 election, Stacey Abrams and her network registered more than 800,000 voters in Georgia alone.

The campaign

In 2018 Stacey Abrams was the candidate for governor. She lost that Georgia governor’s race by 55,000 votes in an election marred by voter suppression. That could have been it for her. Many people would have stopped there. Not Stacey Abrams: she picked herself up and planned and campaigned instead. She formed Fair Fight Action to register voters and show people why they should vote. She wrote a book about voter suppression and co-produced an Amazon Prime documentary. And in November 2020, as the whole world watched a map of the USA on TV for days, as we watched the vote counters in Georgia, we saw, for the first time in 20 years, the state flipping … to the Democrats.

The work to do this was no small project. It took research, to understand the numbers of how the state could flip. They used a strategy of “meeting voters where they are”. This took effort to travel to low turnout areas. It took a team of people to get out and knock on doors, talk to people, persuade them and empower them. It took an understanding of people and a connection with them to show them that there is a different way.

They created simple messaging to show people why they need to vote. Fair Fight Action worked hard to mobilise people. They ensured they kept hope alive by engaging with people. In 2018 Abrams told people it was going to take more than one election to make this happen. And their campaign was all about helping each person to see that they count, and telling people that their voice matters.

And when the votes showed those crucial two Senate seats had been won, she shared that victory with her Fair Fight Action team. This was not all about her personal celebrity. This was about a grassroots movement that worked together to make this happen.

As Raphael Warnock’s victory was declared in the Senate race, his speech acknowledged the significance of his victory. He talked about his 82-year-old mother who used to pick someone else’s cotton, and about the improbable journey that led him to this point. Only 10 black Americans have served in the Senate before him.

The learning

So, what can we learn from this to make our fights fairer and deliver on results we want to see? Well, we have a lot of similar problems here in the UK. We have voters suppressing themselves by not turning up to vote. We have an electoral system that makes it hard to change results and make people’s votes matter. We have people feeling disenfranchised by the system, people lacking in hope and young people feeling despair. We have a mainstream media funded by billionaires. We have a lot of similar types of people dominating our government, not representing the population, and serving their own interests instead.

We need to do what Stacey Abrams and her team did: pick ourselves up, organise, collaborate, campaign, create and help people to see another way. We need to show people that there is a point in voting, and that people do have the power to drive change. We need to engage young people who have every reason to be angry about the world and want change. We need to engage people of colour who are a significant voice in our electorate, so often ignored and disenfranchised.

We have much to be hopeful about and learn about from the voters and campaigners of Georgia. Look what they achieved. We can do this.

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