U.S.

The Stacey Abrams Myth Becomes the Democratic Catechism

Stacey Abrams speaks to supporters on election night in Atlanta, Ga., November 7, 2018. (Lawrence Bryant/Reuters)
Democratic presidential candidates continue to swear her race was stolen.

Stacey Abrams’s refusal to lose the Georgia gubernatorial election graciously was one of the low points of the 2018 midterms. But her insistence that Brian Kemp and the Republicans stole the election from her has now become an article of faith among Democrats.

Democratic presidential contenders who traveled to Atlanta this week to speak to the African-American Leadership Council repeated the claim, which Abrams has made more than a dozen times since she lost to Kemp by 54,723 votes last November. In rote fashion, they repeated Abrams’s charges that the outcome was determined by “voter suppression” conducted by Kemp, who during the race was Georgia’s secretary of state.

South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg termed the alleged suppression “racially motivated” in his remarks to the group. He said that Abrams “ought to be governor.” Throwing complaints about gerrymandering and a desire for more-restrictive campaign-finance laws (neither of which had anything to do with the outcome in Georgia) into the argument, he claimed that the conditions that led to her loss meant that “we cannot truly say we live in a democracy.”

Not be outdone by his supposed competition for moderate Democratic-primary voters, former vice president Joe Biden raised the ante when he addressed the same group on Friday. Biden claimed that voter-integrity laws — which Kemp was legally bound to enforce — were direct descendants of Jim Crow regulations aimed at preventing African Americans from voting. Describing the GOP’s policies as a “methodical assault” on voting rights, Biden said, “voter suppression is the reason why Stacey Abrams isn’t governor right now.”

The assertion that Abrams was cheated, like any legend, gains credibility the more it is told, and now that the presidential field is echoing the sore loser’s refrain, it is becoming harder and harder to contain. Indeed, in none of the accounts of Buttigieg and Biden’s speeches were their claims about cheating or suppression explained, let alone challenged.

As a way of currying favor with Abrams, whose coy refusal to declare her candidacy for a Georgia U.S. Senate seat or for the presidency (unlike Beto O’Rourke, another 2018 participation-trophy winner) has put her in a position to be courted by those who are running, repeating the story in this fashion makes sense. Abrams, who is frequently mentioned as a potential running mate should a white male become the Democratic standard-bearer next year, has assumed a pose something like that of a royal pretender whose rights to someday oust the usurper — Kemp — are honored.

But the problem with this goes beyond the fact that the story is false. Nothing Kemp did as secretary of state took victory away from Abrams. But by repeating a myth about a stolen election — and amplifying it by saying that it is a product of a national conspiracy by Republicans to prevent minorities from voting — they are doing something far worse. These claims do more to undermine confidence that American elections are free and fair than anything the Russians might have done in 2016 or are plotting to do in the future. By allowing a legend to become accepted as fact, they are chipping away at the rule of law in ways that are deluding their followers into believing that they’re living in a racist and corrupt tyranny in which the system is rigged against them.

The irony is that this comes from the same party that spent much of the fall of 2016 warning that Donald Trump and his supporters would never accept defeat and worrying that democracy was under threat from loose talk that fraud was the only way he could lose. Democrats were not wrong to worry about the damage that kind of rhetoric does to the public’s faith in the system.

But Democrats forgot about that as they reeled in shock and dismay when Trump won an upset Electoral College victory. They have spent the last two and a half years holding on to that grudge as they embraced claims that Russian intervention decided the election and that Trump colluded with those efforts. The fact that the Democratic base’s belief in these charges has survived largely intact, even though the Mueller probe failed to substantiate them, reveals the toxic polarization of our political culture.

Repeating Abrams’s story does just as much harm, but, fortunately, it is far more easily debunked.

The claims of voter suppression rest primarily on the fact that as Georgia secretary of state, Kemp enforced a statute passed by a Democratic-majority legislature and signed by a Democratic governor in 1997. It required the voting rolls to be periodically purged to remove names of voters who were dead, or who had moved away or were incarcerated. Under this law, 600,000 names of people who hadn’t voted in the last three elections were removed from the rolls in 2017 by Kemp’s office.

Those who were removed got prior notification in the mail about the impending purge, and they were given a menu of options to retain their registration. Moreover, it took four years to complete the process by which a name was removed. The reason so many names were taken off in 2017 was that a lawsuit by the Georgia NAACP had delayed the routine enforcement of the law for years before the organization eventually lost in the U.S. Supreme Court.

If you assume that most of the 600,000 were Democrats who were denied the right to vote — rather than voters who were deceased or who had moved or been jailed — that gives credibility to Abrams’s story. But there aren’t many people stepping forward since November 2018 to say they were wrongfully removed from the rolls, let alone the tens or hundreds of thousands necessary to substantiate Abrams’s claim that the election was stolen.

The other argument that purportedly backs up the stolen-election claim is that lengthy lines caused by the closing of 212 precincts in the state since 2012 deterred Georgia voters from turning out. But Kemp had nothing to do with that, since all decisions on consolidating voting stations were made by county officials. Which means if there were fewer precincts and longer lines in Democratic-majority counties in Georgia, it was almost certainly due to the decisions made by local Democrats, not Kemp or a national GOP conspiracy.

When examined soberly, Abrams’s claims evaporate. Kemp’s win was no landslide, but his 1.4 percent margin of victory didn’t even give her the right to demand a legal recount. Demographic changes may mean that Georgia is trending away from the red-state status it has had in the last decade, but Stacey Abrams lost because Republicans still can turn out majorities there even in years when the odds favor Democrats.

But by continuing to swear to the lie that the election was stolen, Biden, Buttigieg, and every other Democrat who repeats that claim while paying court to Abrams and hoping to win African-American votes are poisoning the well of American democracy.

Abrams has damaged her cause with repeated statements both before and after the midterms that can be interpreted as favoring voting rights for non-citizens. That reinforces Republican suspicions that Democratic opposition to voter-integrity laws is rooted in a desire to commit fraud.

In this way, Republicans and Democrats aren’t merely disagreeing but talking past each other in a dialogue of the deaf in which both sides think their opponents are seeking to steal elections.

Abrams and the Democratic presidential candidates seeking her support are setting the country up for a 2020 election in which neither side trusts the system. Under those circumstances, we can expect that the tradition in which losing candidates graciously accepted their losses will soon be a relic of a bygone America that no longer exists.

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