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7 November 2018

In Georgia, Stacey Abrams won’t concede defeat until every vote is counted. This is why.

As of this morning, Brian Kemp was leading by about 75,000 votes in the gubernatorial race. Between January and August this year, he cancelled more than 85,000 voter registrations.

By Sophie McBain

In Georgia’s gubernatorial election, one of the closest and highest-stakes races in the country, Republican Brian Kemp is ahead of Democrat Stacey Abrams by just over 75,000 votes, or 1.9 per cent of the vote, according to the most recent Associated Press figures (updated at 9.18 am EST).

Kemp has said he has a “very strong lead” but stopped short of declaring victory, and Abrams has declined to concede defeat. She has said she will wait until every vote is counted, including tens of thousands of provisional and absentee ballots.

“Democracy only works when we work for it. When we fight for it. When we demand it,” she said in a speech to her supporters at the Regency Ballroom in Atlanta. “In a civilised nation, the machinery of democracy should work for everyone everywhere, not just in certain places and not just on a certain day,” she said, before leading the crowd in a chant of: “Our voices! Our votes! Our time!”

Under Georgia’s election rules, if neither candidate manages to secure more than 50 per cent of the popular vote, the race will automatically advance to a run-off. (Kemp currently has 50.5 per cent).

Should Abrams win, she would become the first black woman to be governor of any US state. The Yale-educated lawyer and romance novelist built an impressive grassroots campaign and in 2013 founded a non-profit, the New Georgia Project, that aims to encourage traditional non-voters to cast their ballot. Between 2014 and 2016 the organisation submitted 200,000 voter registrations for people of colour.

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Kemp, on the other hand, has served as Georgia’s Secretary of State since 2010, a role that grants him oversight of elections – including his own gubernatorial race. He’s used that role to implement restrictive electoral policies that disproportionately affect people of colour.

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He even told donors that Abram’s voter turnout operation “continues to concern us, especially if everyone uses and exercises their right to vote,” according to a recording obtained by RollingStone. The kinds of people who traditionally don’t vote – young people, poor people, minorities – are much more likely to support a Democrat like Abrams.

In The Atlantic, Carol Anderson, a professor of African American Studies at Emory University writes:

If the Georgia race had taken place in another country—say, the Republic of Georgia—U.S. media and the U.S. State Department would not have hesitated to question its legitimacy, if for no other reason than Kemp’s dual roles as candidate and election overseer. Of course, there were other reasons. As of this morning, he led by about 75,000 votes; more than 650,000 registrations were canceled last year, and more than 85,000 were canceled through August 1 this year.

As I noted in a previous piece for New Statesman, as well as carrying out voter purges, Kemp suspended over 53,000 registrations over an “exact match rule”, many of them minorities. Only a last-minute lawsuit prevented Georgia’s election authorities from rejecting over 150 absentee ballots because of an inexact signature match, which again disproportionately affected minorities.

In addition to this, the state has shut down 214 polling stations since 2012, many of them in poor areas where people have fewer resources to travel to vote. This may have contributed to the chaos on election day, when some voters reported having to wait more than five hours to cast their vote (there were also technical problems with some voting machines).

Who knows how many voters were eventually forced to give up because they had to return to work, or had childcare duties or other responsibilities. It does not seem a stretch to add, too, that low-income Americans might be the ones forced to give up soonest.

According to ThinkProgress, at least four students in Atlanta, Georgia, were forced to cast provisional ballots with no explanation given for why they could not use a traditional ballot. Provisional ballots are a last resort for voters who believe they have been told erroneously that they are not registered or eligible to vote, and it makes sense that Abrams, who understands the many barriers and unfair challenges minority groups have faced in her state, would want to ensure that no-one’s voice is uncounted.

Who knows at this stage if the number of Democratic voters among the provisional, absentee and other uncounted ballots will be enough to force Abrams and Kemp into a run-off. It may do: by 11am EST, CBS News was placing Kemp’s share of the vote at 50.3 per cent (AP had not yet updated its figures.)

But it is clear that for Abrams this is not only about her victory or her defeat, but about the ideological principle of respecting every citizen’s suffrage, in a state where so many have been denied this fundamental democratic right. In one of the murkiest races this election cycle, Abrams has become a pillar of moral and ideological clarity.

Should Kemp be forced into a run-off, it will be a righteous victory for Abrams and her supporters. Should he maintain his majority, even after every vote is counted, his victory will nevertheless be a defeat for anyone who believes that race or income should not be a barrier to voting. It’s going to be hard at this stage to prove that Kemp will have won only through suppressing minority voters – but that shouldn’t be a question anyone should be compelled to contemplate in 2018, in America.