Stacey Abrams: We’ve Got to Talk About Power | Sojourners

Stacey Abrams: We’ve Got to Talk About Power

How to outsmart the deliberate barriers placed in voters’ way.
Illustration by Tracie Ching

I GREW UP in Gulfport, Miss., which is on the coast, and my parents are from Hattiesburg, which is about an hour north up Highway 49. On weekends, my mom and dad would pile the six of us in the car, and we would visit my grandparents.

My grandparents’ names always caused some confusion in our family because my grandmother was Wilter and my grandfather was Walter, but they called each other Bill and Jim. I didn’t know who was who. And my grandmother—Wilter, Bill, and known affectionately by my grandfather as Sugar Honey—she and my grandfather raised us with my parents to understand where we came from.

They wanted us to understand that my great-grandmother Moo Moo, who lived in the little house next to theirs, was two generations removed from slavery. Her grandparents had been slaves. Her parents had been sharecroppers. If you were lucky, you would get there in time to help her shell peas and listen to the stories that she would tell. You could listen to the history from her mouth, and you knew you were in a sacred place sitting on that front porch. When I got ready to run for office, I was bringing them with me, and I didn’t quite understand it.

But in September 2018, as the election for Georgia’s governor was heating up and stories were flying around about voter suppression, I went home to Mississippi because my grandmother was ailing. My grandfather had passed away in 2011, but my grandmother, she was on the edge. Grandma had a rocking chair recliner she sat in most of the day and a bed right beside it. When you came in the room, you sat on the edge of the bed and took her hand—because she was watching MSNBC, and you didn’t want to interrupt her learning why she was mad that day.

When she got to a place where she was going to acknowledge your presence, she would mute the television and turn to you. As I sat by her bedside, her hand was frailer than it had ever been before. The skin was papery and soft. The bones were brittle, and I could feel every one of them; I knew I was holding my grandmother’s hand for one of the last times. But she didn’t want to talk about how she was ailing; she wanted to talk about my election. She asked me if I was taking care of her baby, meaning me. I said, “Grandma, I’m doing my best. But I’m worried, because this man I’m running against is in charge of the election. He’s the scorekeeper, he’s the contestant, he’s doing the box copy, he’s the umpire, and it’s going to be hard.” And she said, “Have you done what you can?” I said, “Yes ma’am.” “Let me tell you about the first time I voted,” she said.

‘But we’ve won’

MY GRANDMOTHER GREW up in Mississippi, and she was a part of the civil rights movement in the way so many Black people were at that moment: not on the front lines, but quietly pushing. She and my grandfather had five children and they worked at the university; if they had been too visible in their protest, they might’ve lost their lives. They would’ve certainly lost their income.

But their children were more directly involved. My father was arrested at the age of 14 or 15 helping register Black people to vote in Mississippi. My mother did the same work—she just managed not to get caught. My grandmother talked about how she would have to pay bail to get her children out of jail. That was part of her contribution to the civil rights movement.

As we sat there, I was expecting her to tell me this great story about how proudly she went and cast her first ballot. But that’s not what she said.

It was 1968—the first presidential election in which she would be eligible to vote—and my grandmother was in the back room of the three-room house she and my grandfather occupied. They’d gotten off work and they’d gotten dressed, because you used to get dressed up to go and vote. My grandfather called out, “Bill, it’s time to go.” And my grandmother said nothing.

He yelled out, “Wilter, it’s time to go.”

She still didn’t respond, so finally he came to the back and said, “Sugar Honey, what’s going on? It’s time for us to go and vote.”

But my grandmother was sitting frozen on the bed. She said, “I don’t want to go.” He said, “What do you mean, you don’t want to go? We get to vote in this presidential election. We get to vote!”

And she said, “I’m scared.” She remembered the dogs and the hoses. She remembered the billy clubs.

“But we’ve won,” said my grandfather. “The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed. Mississippi finally acknowledged the federal government, and we get to go vote! Your children went to jail for this! Our friends and families, we fought for this. Why won’t you come?”

And what she told me chilled me. She said, “I wasn’t afraid of the right to vote—I was afraid of the power.”

My grandfather took her hand and said, “Wilter, you need to come on.”

My grandmother told me, “I didn’t want to go, because I was afraid that if I got up and went out there, I might be disappointed. It might not work.”

But she screwed her courage up anyway, because she thought about my dad, Robert. And she thought about her girls, Max and Val, and her younger boys, Jerry and Terry, and she said, “They worked too hard for me to refuse.” So she got up and she went.

Despair, not apathy

MY GRANDMOTHER NEVER missed another election, but what she told me stayed with me: She was afraid of her power.

So often we rail against folks for being apathetic; they’re not apathetic—they are afraid. They have been despairing for so long. They have been desperate for so long. They are afraid of hope. They are afraid of faith. From the beginning of this country, we have been told that we are not enough. We’ve been told that our bodies count but not our souls. We’ve been told that we are insufficient for this moment, so why bother trying?

It is our responsibility to go to those people who are sad. They are beaten. They are working for wages that are too low for families that are broken. They are afraid that what they have is all they will ever see—and it could be taken away.

And if we want them to take their power, we’ve got to talk to them about power. No euphemisms about “you should vote because someone died”; you need to vote so we can live. That is our responsibility. That is our opportunity, and that is our obligation. That should be the message.

Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs and hoses and dogs. It’s administrative rules. It’s bureaucratic barriers. It’s precincts that seem to close in the dead of night.

But they don’t close secretly. They don’t have the ability to take our votes simply because they can. They do it because we don’t show up at the county board of elections meetings. We don’t protest when they’re taking our stuff; we get angry when we find out that it’s gone. There are ways that we can see the traps before we get there.

Fifty sets of rules

VOTER REGISTRATION IS a trap. We are one of the only industrialized, democratized nations that requires people to do the work themselves. In almost every other nation, you are automatically registered. Automatic registration isn’t: “If you go and get your driver’s license, then we give you your right to vote.” Automatic registration is: “If you are born into this country eligible, we will make sure you have a voice.” That is what we should have.

But because we live in a nation that has begun its path to democracy by putting stumbling blocks in our way, we’ve got to start moving those blocks. We have 50 different democracies in America, not one; the rules for getting registered are different in every state. It’s your responsibility to know what those rules are. Every day in your churches and as your lay leaders go out into the community, take voter registration forms with you if it’s legal. You’ve got to be able to register people to vote, because that’s the point of entry for our power.

But they’ve figured out that we knew how to get on the rolls, so then they started purging us from those rolls. There are nine states where you can lose your right to vote simply because you didn’t use it. When I don’t go hunting on Saturday, no one tells me that I’ve lost my Second Amendment right, so why is it that I can lose my right to vote simply for not using it? And in dozens of other states, it can happen anyway without having it on the books—so don’t think you’re safe just because you’re not in one of those nine states.

Every single week, when you do your sermons between now and November, you need to ask: “Have you checked your status? Are you on the rolls? Can you vote?” But that’s just the beginning.

Absentee voting works

THE SECOND TRAP around voter suppression is, “Do you have access to the ballot?” That includes early voting in the states where it’s allowed. Early voting was very effective in Florida in 2018, where 60,000 people used college early voting locations. In 2019, Florida passed a law saying you could not have an early voting location on a college campus unless it had adequate non-permitted parking. These restrictions—which were loosened in April 2020—would have required most of those colleges to build a new parking deck to give people the right to vote. In North Carolina, where early voting helped elect Barack Obama in 2008, early voting hours have gotten shorter and the number of voting days smaller and smaller since then.

Most states have some version of absentee balloting. Access to the ballot means being the church that says to your people, “I’m going to make sure all of you apply for absentee ballots. We’re going to pass them out in the pews this week. You’re going to fill them out.”

In 2018, my gubernatorial campaign in Georgia sent out 1.6 million applications, and we received 53,000 more votes by absentee ballot than our opponent did. I’m here to tell you it works. That’s why they’re trying to restrict who gets to use absentee ballots.

Everyone’s sacred right

THEN THERE’S VOTER ID. The issue with restrictive voter ID is they’ve taken the basic ID and made the restrictions finer and finer, so that few people can fit through, like a rich man getting through the eye of a needle. Requiring voter ID is not about, “Do we know who you are?” It’s about, “Are you the ‘right’ person?”

Wisconsin restricted its voter ID requirements in 2015. There was an elderly Black woman who had been born in Missouri. She came of age during segregation and had voted in every election in Wisconsin since she moved there. In 2016, when she got ready to vote, they told her no; she had to have new paperwork. The problem was that the new paperwork in Wisconsin required that she have an original birth certificate. But if you were Black and born in Missouri during segregation, you were likely born at home, and you didn’t get a birth certificate. You got a certificate of live birth. But in Wisconsin that was insufficient, and they told this woman—who could point out her name in the 1930 census—that she did not exist for the purposes of voting in Wisconsin. They would not give her a license, and she did not get to vote in 2016.

These stories are told across the country. In places where restrictive voter ID is in place, people do not have the right to vote. We cannot simply bemoan this fact: If you live in a state with restrictive voter ID, do something about it. Ask your parishioners if they have what they need—and if they don’t, help them get it. Take up a collection because these things aren’t free; the ID may be free but getting a certificate may be $75.

My parents raised me to believe the right to vote is sacred and that you work for it—and you work to make sure everyone has it. I decided to focus on voter suppression, so I started the work of Fair Fight. In the 2020 election we’re going to be in the 18 battleground states making certain that the right to vote is protected. We want to help people do voter education. We want to help send people forward so that they can vote with confidence, because we have millions of nonvoters who do not vote—not because they can’t, but because they’re afraid. Together we can lift that fear.

But what I need you to understand is that we’ve already won. We won because we changed what people believed was possible. We won because people took their power and they showed up. Even though the election in Georgia was stolen, our responsibility is to not let their theft steal our spirit. This is our moment. We’ve already won; we just have to claim the victory. We can set our hands to it and change the future.

This article is adapted from a speech Stacey Abrams gave in February 2020 at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor Clergy and Lay Leadership Conference.

This appears in the September/October 2020 issue of Sojourners