Thanks to Stacey Abrams, Georgia Is a Swing State in the 2020 Election

Here's where Georgia and other swing states stand as the votes roll in.

Swing States/Stacey Abrams Piece
Photo: Getty Images/Erin Glover/

Even after the 2018 gubernatorial race that Stacey Abrams narrowly lost (if we’re being especially liberal with the word “lost”), it was hard to believe that Georgia, conventionally understood at least for my entire lifetime to be a “red” state, could really flip for Democrats in 2020. And yet here we are, with a meaningful shot at the state not just voting for the Democratic nominee for president, but also flipping two Senate seats from red to blue.

This is due in no small part to Abrams herself, and her tireless voting rights advocacy which has helped drive record-blasting voter turnout in the state. All of which begs the question: what if swing states and safe states have just been self-fulfilling prophecies all along?

Abrams’ 2018 run for governor and her narrow, hotly contested loss to now-Governor Brian Kemp, thrust the issue of widespread voter suppression into the national conversation in a way that hadn’t been quite so clear in the past. In the first place, Kemp was criticized by Democrats and the Abrams campaign because he was running while still serving as the Secretary of State, meaning he was in charge of facilitating his own election. Kemp’s office came under fire for holding back voter registrations, massive voter roll purges, rejected absentee ballots, widespread polling place closures, and more, all affecting majority Black areas and voters. And on election day, counties expected to see largely minority voters experienced huge delays and broken voting machines.

"We are going to make sure that every vote is counted, every single vote," Abrams said at the time. "In a civilized nation, the machinery of democracy should work for everyone, everywhere.” She refused to concede until every last vote was counted.

After 2018, Abrams was predicted to continue in politics by running for some other office, but instead, she founded Fair Fight, a PAC dedicated to promoting fair elections not just in the state of Georgia, but across the country. Since 2018, 800,000 new Georgian voters have been registered. The advocate has also hit the pavement in a big way, talking with the media about the importance of voting rights and voter turnout, and making a huge push this year for Biden once it became clear that he was the Democratic nominee.

I don’t believe it’s an accident that in the year when voter turnout in Georgia is at record numbers, Democrats are seeing their best opportunity to capture the Southern state since 1992. By the end of early voting on Friday, Oct. 30, nearly 3.9 million Georgians had voted, nearing the previous voter turnout record in 2016 of 4 million votes. On Election Day, voter turnout is expected to reach as high as 2 million.

On Election Day, FiveThirtyEight’s final polling average for Georgia had Biden ahead by 1.2 points.

Texas is another state which has always seemed to fall safely in the Republican column, but this state is also historically one of the hardest to vote in, and is ranked 48th in voter turnout among all 50 states. However this year, the state began breaking voter turnout records, and has been officially designated a toss-up state by Cook Political Report.

The latest polling averages for Texas had the president up by barely more than a point.

Pundits and analysts speculate that part of the reason historically red states like Georgia, Texas, Arizona, and North Carolina are suddenly competitive this year has to do with a changing electorate. Those states’ largest cities, including Atlanta, Houston, Dallas, and Phoenix, are the fastest growing metro areas in the country according to Census data, with growing populations of young, diverse professionals and other demographics that skew Democratic. At the same time, Republican strategists have become more forthright than ever with their efforts to suppress the vote, especially in largely Black and brown communities — making it clear that the GOP expects to win only if fewer people vote. One such example is Texas legislature’s efforts to throw out over 100,000 votes cast via drive-through in Harris County, or Republicans fighting to stop states from counting absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day, all of which was more or less confirmed by Republican legal strategist Benjamin L. Ginsberg in a scathing Washington Post op-ed.

In battleground Pennsylvania, where election officials are not even allowed to begin processing ballots until Nov. 3, and which is anticipated by many to be the tipping point state which decides the election, the entire Democratic establishment — up to and including celebrities like John Legend and Chrissy Teigen, Bradley Cooper, and Lady GaGa — have been making a massive final push for votes. Meanwhile Republicans have already begun gearing up for a legal battle in the state in order to keep votes down.

In Pennsylvania, Biden is leading the swing state's polls by a whopping 4.7 points.

What this suggests to me is not just that Atlanta is getting younger and more populous, it’s that our notion of what makes a battleground state and what makes a safe state is fundamentally flawed. Perhaps part of the reason voter turnout in states like Texas is so low is that voters, assuming no matter how they vote the state will always go to the Republicans, decide not to even bother.

“When Barack Obama was elected, it was among the most effective elections we’ve ever had because it brought out communities that had long been denied access, who had long excluded themselves because they did not believe they were welcome, who had never been engaged or even invited into participation,” Abrams said in a recent interview with Ezra Klein.

Looking at the rankings of voter participation by state, you can see a clear pattern. States with the lowest voter turnout, including Hawaii, West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas, and Oklahoma, are all considered “safe states.” Meanwhile battlegrounds like Minnesota, Wisconsin, New Hampshire, and Iowa have among the highest.

Among the many problems with the electoral college, perhaps one of the most insidious is the way in which the system itself may be a drag on voter turnout, convincing Americans that their vote doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things, unless they live in one of the few hotly contested battlegrounds that suddenly receive wall-to-wall coverage once every four years. I wonder what the electoral map would really look like if every person eligible to vote actually voted.

For me, voting in safely blue New York feels a bit like writing the name of my preferred candidate on a scrap of paper and then tossing it into the wind — but I imagine that’s how voters in Georgia and Texas used to think, too. Maybe that’s how Michigan Democrats felt in 2016. I suspect we actually have far fewer safe states than we really think.

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