Grassroots activists are pushing ahead full-steam with efforts to ensure election officials count every last ballot in Georgia, where gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is still locked in a contentious race against Republican Brian Kemp.
More than a week out of the 2018 midterm elections, tensions over uncounted ballots—of which Abrams' campaign believes there could be as many as 26,000—have exploded into protests at the state capitol, where hundreds gathered in a protest on Tuesday, organized by a local Black Lives Matter chapter. Several protesters were arrested at the demonstration, including Georgia state Senator Nikema Williams, who believes she was "singled out" as a Black female lawmaker. The white male colleague who was with her at the protest, state Representative David Dreyer, hadn't been arrested.
“In 2018, I’d never thought that I’d be arrested for standing up for my right to vote,” Williams told The New Yorker while detained in a police van. “I was removed from the state capitol, and I work as a state senator for supporting my people’s right to vote. This is 2018. We were peacefully protesting.”
Williams told the outlet she was later strip-searched. She spent some six hours in custody at Atlanta's Fulton County jail.
Kemp's campaign have characterized those who continue to rally in support of counting Georgia's outstanding ballots as "radical backers" who have let "desperation" and "delusion" cloud their better judgment: "Stacey Abrams lost and her concession is long overdue," campaign spokesman Ryan Mahoney told the Washington Post earlier this week. But though Abrams' supporters are explicit in their goal to get the Democratic candidate within the margin of votes to trigger a runoff election, they're also fighting for a basic principle that supersedes Abrams' candidacy: Everyone's vote should count.
"I say absolutely not," Jessica Zeigler told me Wednesday when I asked her what she would tell those who believe Abrams should concede. Zeigler is the co-lead of Indivisible Georgia 6th, a grassroots organization that campaigned for progressive women running in the 6th congressional district and statewide. "I don’t think you can separate the two issues. Yes, absolutely our goal is to get to a runoff but we can’t do that without fighting against disenfranchisement and poor election management every step of the way."
Zeigler said confusion had roiled Georgia over the last few days as organizers like her tried to assess where to focus their efforts. On Tuesday, Abrams' campaign filed a federal lawsuit to demand that election officials count provisional and absentee ballots in her race's final tally. And later that day, a federal judge ruled that Gwinnett County, a Democratic stronghold, had violated the Civil Rights Act when its officials rejected a number of absentee ballots due to small errors. Though such a ruling could ostensibly guarantee Abrams more votes in her column, Zeigler said it's been difficult to see the impact of legal maneuvers on the ground.
"The mismanagement of our whole election system has turned this race into chaos," Zeigler said. "From the ground it’s hard to tell how these suits are actually affecting vote counts."
In his role as secretary of state, Kemp helped sow the seeds for Georgia's current state of disorder. In the months leading up to the midterm elections, Kemp purged more than 300,000 voters from the rolls, and placed an additional 53,000 would-be voters on a "pending list" in attempts to block their registrations from going through. What's more, broken voting machines and long lines on Election Day forced many Georgia residents to cast provisional ballots, which Abrams and her supporters argue could be the difference between a definitive Kemp victory and a runoff, which would see Abrams and Kemp face off in December.
"Honestly, it's a shit show," Zeigler's Indivisible co-lead Amy Nosek told me Wednesday via text. "It's fast-moving, hectic, and chaotic. It's been somewhat hard for activists and volunteers to know where to focus. That's not because of disorganization but rather the speed at which things are changing."
But together, Nosek and Zeigler are doing what they can. Zeigler is helping to organize a day of action on Friday to take place at the capitol to demand a recount. Indivisible volunteers are calling county officials to demand full lists of everyone who cast a provisional ballot, and then calling and texting those voters to encourage them to double check that their votes were counted. In between, they're text banking absentee voters to remind them to check on their ballots and calling the secretary of state's office to demand transparency.
Zeigler says one of the most effective ways to organize around the uncounted ballots is by highlighting people's individual experiences with voter suppression: One story that stuck out to her came from an elderly woman who told her she'd had her absentee ballot rejected twice because her signature didn't match. It took a family member hand-delivering the ballot to ensure it counted.
A future where every Georgia resident has access to the ballot box, Zeigler argues, may not exist without Abrams at the helm.
"The more we dig and talk to voters the more we learn just how hard it is to vote in Georgia," she said. "I think we all know that we we’ve got to get Abrams to a runoff and then elect her and a Democratic secretary of state so we can combat voter suppression in Georgia. ... These are people who deserve to have a say."