The following is adapted from Lady Justice: Women, the Law, and the Fight to Save America, by our own Dahlia Lithwick. The book is available now. Published by arrangement with Penguin Press, a member of Penguin Random House LLC. Copyright © 2022 by Dahlia Lithwick.
If Stacey Abrams had prevailed when she ran for governor of Georgia in 2018, she would have become the nation’s first female African American governor and likely gone on to become a household name in politics. But Abrams lost that race—and is now easily one of the most recognizable thinkers and activists in the country. In the years before and after her run, she focused much of her time on the New Georgia Project, which started as a means of helping people access health care and has evolved into an organization that helps register voters. The culmination of much of her organizing came with massive wins in the 2020 election cycle, when the state went for Joe Biden (flipping blue for the first time since 1992) in November, and then delivered two Democrats to the Senate in a special election that January, giving the party unified control over Congress. Now, Abrams is running again for governor, an effort that has come with sky-high expectations but with an outcome that remains wholly uncertain. I don’t know what the rest of the media will make of Abrams if she loses this race—but I do know that she is one of the women lawyers who makes me optimistic about America’s future, in part because she understands the long game. And so, here is what I learned about Abrams, and her project, which is, simply put, the very work of democracy.
Stacey Abrams was born in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1973 and raised in Gulfport, Mississippi, the second of six children. In 1989, when she was 15, her parents decided to attend Methodist divinity school and enrolled at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in Atlanta. Her parents would both eventually become Methodist ministers. In 1991, Abrams—as valedictorian of her high school class—was invited to meet the governor of Georgia. As she told CBS News in 2021:
My parents and I arrived on the MARTA bus, because we didn’t have a car. We go up the driveway of the governor’s mansion. We get to the guard gate, and the guard stops us and tells us we don’t belong there, that it’s a private event. My dad says, “No, this is my daughter, Stacey. We have an invitation.” But the guard doesn’t ask for my invitation that my mom has. And I remember watching him watch the bus pull off… .
And if my mother had not had my arm in a death grip, I would have been back on that bus. I think two things happened that day. One, they were not going to let me be denied this honor that I’d achieved. But two, I think they wanted me to see my responsibility is to not let someone else tell me who I am and where I belong.
Abrams was a voracious reader, and she constantly watched PBS, in part because it was one of only two channels her family’s TV got. She has said that her father was an original feminist role model for her, because he unhesitatingly told people that his wife was the smartest woman he knew. As a student, Abrams excelled. She was always in advanced studies, though she frequently found herself the only Black student in her classes. She read encyclopedias and dictionaries because her mother routinely directed her to look things up. In 1991, Abrams headed to Spelman College, a historically Black women’s university, where she was elected student government president, which she came to credit with her first lessons in fundraising and the allocation of funds. At Spelman, she majored in interdisciplinary studies (political science, economics, and sociology) and minored in theater. Abrams went on to earn a master’s degree in public policy from the University of Texas, then entered Yale Law School, where she opted for a career in tax law. She told The Washington Post that she became a tax lawyer because after a stint working in the mayor’s office, she realized that if she wanted to be a public servant, she needed to learn how the entire system worked.
At Yale, she started writing romance novels under the pseudonym Selena Montgomery. She has always connected her writing to her politics and to her interest in government, and swims as easily in popular culture references as she does in lofty political theory. While Abrams has told interviewers that she isn’t a “glad-hander” and that she is perfectly happy to sit in silence, she emphatically believes that political leadership demands a certain amount of vulnerability, goofiness, and lack of pretension. In a 2020 interview with New York Magazine’s Rebecca Traister, Abrams explained why a recent tweet about Buffy the Vampire Slayer is central to how she thinks about leadership: “It’s important that we enjoy what it means to live in a free society and to have these moments of respite.
But it’s also an organizing tool. If you can meet people where they are, and they want to be with you when you get there, that helps a lot.” For Abrams, the lofty, prophetic hectoring will backfire. “If we enter this work chastising, lecturing, and hectoring,” she told Traister, “you might get a few people to do something in that moment to get you to shut up, but you’re never going to convert them or convince them that it’s worth doing again.”
Abrams said she wants people to “see the normalness” of activism and political engagement, and if they see that “normalness can be profound in how their lives get better, then they’re going to be more willing to risk showing up and standing in that line and being rained on and being yelled at by some guy in a truck who’s telling them to go home. They’re going to be more willing if they think that they’re in this together, as opposed to they’re being sort of led to do this by people who think they’re too important to show up.” For the millions of women who launched themselves into organizing and knocking on doors and marching after 2016, what Abrams was naming here was the way in which you could sweep activism into your everyday life, with Facebook groups, wine-tasting circles, or Etsy projects. Politics needed to become a thing you did while you drove to work and were on the sidelines at the school play.
Abrams isn’t just a prolific writer. She’s also a meticulous researcher. “I’m the daughter of a research librarian,” Abrams told CBS News in 2021. “I grew up not only writing but learning how to research, learning how to dive in and think strategically about how to learn new things.” And what Abrams had been researching for years was how to expand the electorate in ways that would allow Georgia, a state that hadn’t gone for a Democrat since Bill Clinton in 1992, to turn blue. In 2006, Abrams won a seat as a Democrat in the Georgia Assembly, going on to become the first female minority leader of her party. What she came to understand was that between redistricting and vote dilution, something massive needed to be done to reverse a tide that led to a Republican sweep of state offices in 2010. So she put together a 21-page PowerPoint diagnosing the challenges facing Georgia Democrats and laying out what would have to happen if state Democrats wanted to recalibrate power by 2020. Abrams then took that PowerPoint on the road, first to her caucus and then to potential big donors around the country, and her pitch was, as she says now, straightforward: “Please pay attention to Georgia. We are not the South that you remember. We’ve got some real opportunities, and we need you to pay attention.” Abrams wanted people to understand that more than half a million Black Georgians were not registered to vote. Her big idea was simply to “register and civically engage the rising electorate in our state.”
Abrams traveled to New York and to California and to Washington, D.C., as a slightly audacious minority leader in a southern state that shouldn’t be written off, and she told potential donors that she had a plan, that they should pay attention, and that she would be back to ask for their money. Back in 2012, as she later told Traister, “people were skeptical but willing to meet with me because they’d never had a minority leader from a Southern chamber come to them and say, ‘Give me your money.’”
After the 2012 election, donors were suddenly interested. Abrams had initially launched the New Georgia Project to help Georgia’s vulnerable residents enroll for health-care coverage under the Affordable Care Act. But she was also seeing that no legislative or policy solutions could be counted on if the electoral power of Georgia Democrats was being hollowed out by the teaspoonful. In 2013, while serving in the Georgia state legislature, Abrams had figured out why state Democrats were being crushed electorally, even as demographics suggested they should have been winning. Despite the country itself, and particularly the South, becoming more diverse almost by the hour, state Republicans were locking in their own electoral power, creating supermajorities that controlled every aspect of state government. Women, young people, and people of color were engaged and interested in local and national politics, but oddly they were less and less represented in office. In the presidential elections of 2008 and 2012, Black women famously had the highest voter-participation rates of any demographic group but were still the least likely to hold elected positions.
What Abrams intuited over a decade ago was that if you could get out the vote in numbers that could counter and even exceed red state efforts to suppress the vote, you might claw back power, at least in some key races, and start to win elections. Giving up on the South, on minority voters, or on places that skewed Republican was handing over power that would soon be leveraged to become permanent. Her formula would prove to be the silver bullet that defeated Trump in 2020 and flipped the two Georgia Senate seats, and thus the U.S. Senate, blue in the first days of 2021.
The problem Abrams named before it had a name was actually also the oldest problem on record: racialized vote suppression. America had, after all, been founded on the premise that voting would be exceptionally easy if you were white and wealthy and male, whereas it would be challenging, if not impossible, if you were not. As Justice Elena Kagan characterized it in her dissent in Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee, the 2021 case that would shrink the power of the Voting Rights Act to fight race-based voting requirements, “Democratic ideals in America got off to a glorious start; democratic practice not so much.” While the Declaration of Independence made lofty promises about “deriving [its] just powers from the consent of the governed,” for at least a hundred years, consent was necessary only from white men. African Americans, Native Americans, women, and all those who didn’t hold property were presumed to just float along in the slipstream of liberty.
Despite constitutional amendments, voting laws, and court oversight, states with Republican governors fell all over themselves to make elections hardest for the very people who were making America what it had long promised to be: an actual democracy. Texas, Georgia, and Florida went on a spree. Alabama got drunk. North Carolina danced on the bar. It doesn’t much matter which tactic they used. Strict new voter identification laws, challenging new registration requirements, closing minority polling places, purges of the voter rolls. It was open season, and any old trick that could shave a few points off election results was in play.
It was Stacey Abrams who more than 15 years ago recognized that this burgeoning impulse—to undermine the legitimacy of certain (read: minority) voters, in certain (read: minority) jurisdictions, with claims that certain (read: minority) populations were cheating in elections—needed to be countered by an equal and opposite imperative. That imperative was that more people should vote and that unless every ballot is valued and counted equally, democracy itself is in peril. After running for governor of Georgia in 2018 and losing that election by a narrow margin in a year when suppression was estimated to affect an even wider slice of Georgians, Abrams became both the voice and the symbol of that proposition.
Abrams unfailingly references herself as just another avatar, someone who merely presents a legion of extraordinary Black female elected officials, voting rights advocates, and community organizers on the ground who are all working together to register new populations and to get out the vote. That claim understates the extent to which she was also the architect of a strategy that would become a juggernaut in the face of efforts to limit the franchise. In a book about women lawyers who make change, about fame and not-fame, about insiders and outsiders, and about law versus power, Stacey Abrams struck me as an exemplar of all of the above. What she sought to do, in a political culture driven by cults of fame and personality and by stories of Great Men with marked cowboy leanings, was to decenter the candidate and change the view of an election as a reality show or morality play. It was Abrams who understood that political campaigns must rise and fall less on the charisma and popularity of any one candidate than on the agency and passion of every last voter. It was Abrams who didn’t just want voters who swooned for an Obama or knocked on doors for a Hillary. She wanted voters who fully bought into the idea that every part of government needed to work for and respond to the electorate. As she would put it, “For me, the through-line is: If it’s entirely based on a single person’s personality, or reputation, when that gets hit, everything falls apart.”
What Abrams emphasized, both in her run for the Georgia governor’s seat in 2018 and as a through line in her elections work, is that if it’s about any one individual, no matter how famous or charismatic, the risks of that person screwing up eventually become intolerable. She had found and built the cure for electoral politics as reality show. At minimum, she was helping voters to understand that if electoral politics are a reality show, it is the voter herself who is the star.
Election law is fast becoming the sexiest thing a young lawyer can do. And Georgia is just the beginning. Anyone who believes that voter roll purges and shuttered polling places and signature match requirements are limited to Atlanta is missing the fact that it was happening in their own backyard.
The 2018 trial run in Georgia afforded proponents of generous voting rights ample time and resources to defend against the imaginary vote fraud that would soon be deployed to try to choke off voting by mail, early registration, drop boxes, and the other expansions of the franchise that would come to define the 2020 election wars. And, to deal with that bogeyman, let’s do this quickly: There is no widespread crisis of in-person vote fraud in America. None. There is also no widespread crisis of mail-in vote fraud or early voting fraud. None. Based on the most generous set of data collected by the Heritage Foundation, the incidence of voter fraud in the two decades before the 2020 election was about 0.00006 percent of total ballots cast. That’s about 1200 cases dating back to the 1980s. The nonpartisan Brennan Center’s massive study from 2007 put that number at somewhere between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. That same study famously concluded that it’s more likely an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”
Why, then, do we keep hearing about boxes of stolen ballots, guys who vote once then put on a fake mustache to vote again, corrupt election workers who steal or damage great quantities of ballots, and voting machines cunningly programmed by nefarious Italians and George Soros to rig and steal and damage elections? Because those claims serve a very deliberate purpose, which is to make voting far more difficult for far more people. This, too, has been happening for more than a decade. Anodyne “voter integrity” measures with names like Kemp’s “exact match” system and the infamous Interstate Cross- check system are cumbersome computerized database-matching programs that toss eligible voters off the rolls based on trivial errors, of which the burden will fall on spellings of foreign-sounding names. One team of researchers at Harvard, Yale, Stanford, and the University of Pennsylvania determined that the Crosscheck program once pressed by Kansas’s secretary of state Kris Kobach had an eye-popping error rate of 99 percent and that for every fraudulent vote it stopped, it would impede 2,000 eligible voters from casting a ballot. Texas officials were sued after a “review” of their own state voter rolls led to challenges to the citizenship status of thousands of voters who turned out largely to be naturalized citizens. Voter suppression is all a big game of whack- a-mole, and Stacey Abrams’s response was to sign up voters faster than they were being turned away and to challenge state practices that burden minority voters disproportionately. More than a lawyer and an organizer, Abrams became a teacher, a roaming constitutional law class on election manipulation.
Stacey Abrams’s contribution to the seeming doom loop of shrinking voting rights, as aided and abetted by the Supreme Court, was to refuse to succumb to the doom. In her view, voting is an act of confidence, a choice to be visible, a web of connections, a mechanism to better your condition, and a refusal to be told that you don’t belong in the governor’s mansion, whether you’re a high schooler who arrived via public transport or a Black woman trying to organize uncommitted voters. Abrams came out of the 2018 governor’s race with no illusions about the hazards of voting while Black. She told CBS News in 2021 that this was part of the point: “When you’ve never had to think about the hardship of voting, then yes, these conversations on voter suppression seem absurd to you. When you have never spent more than seven minutes in line, it is nearly impossible to imagine that there are poor Black people who stand in line for eight hours, miss an entire day’s wages, risk losing their jobs simply to cast a ballot in an election that may or may not have any benefit in their lives.”
Dahlia Lithwick, one of the nation’s foremost legal commentators, tells the gripping and heroic story of the women lawyers who fought the racism, sexism, and xenophobia of Donald Trump’s presidency—and won.
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In short, what Stacey Abrams offered Americans was rooted in the transformational force of taking back power and believing in democracy in the face of being told nothing matters. But also what she offered up was the obligation to take on the extraordinary act of empathy and imagination required to understand that just because you have voter ID, and just because you have a mailbox up the street, and just because you have the last name Smith doesn’t make voting simple for everyone. And if thousands of people cannot vote because of where they live or how their last name is spelled or because they live somewhere with a PO box, then nobody is voting in a real democracy. Justice Samuel Alito doesn’t even attempt to imagine what voting might be like for someone who can’t access it. The only suffering he seemed able to see was his own unfounded fear about rampant vote fraud.
One of the things women bring to the law is the capacity to see outside the hermetically sealed story of the law itself: what I’ve called the split-screen understanding that the entire edifice of the legal system is a privilege that was for so long denied to so many. It’s why it matters that Stacey Abrams writes romance novels. It’s an act of imagination and generosity. Abrams didn’t just build a machine that would “get out the vote” in Georgia. She told a story that would set the stage for a 2020 election in Georgia, and across the nation, in which millions of Americans who never had the experience of voting while Black could finally both imagine what that was like and prepare themselves to do so.