The clapping hands appeared on the screen — one, two, a flurry of emojis — flashing under the Facebook Live feed of the former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, Stacey Abrams. It was the socially distanced derivative of the applause she has often encountered in the past year or so, since her narrow loss in the race for governor of Georgia in 2018.
Ms. Abrams was addressing the virtual audience of the New Hampshire Democratic Party convention. She was there last Saturday to talk voter suppression, the focal point of her work since 2018, and by the looks of the comments, had found a receptive crowd. “Go Stacey!” popped one, then, 13 seconds later: “Stacy for VP!”
This, of course, was the subtext of Ms. Abrams’s appearance Saturday, and again Thursday night when she appeared with Joseph R. Biden Jr. on MSNBC to talk about voting rights.
In early April, on a call with Georgians to discuss her work on ballot access in the pandemic, Ms. Abrams said: “You don’t do these things for the title.” But in her recent run of appearances and interviews, she has nevertheless been open about the title she wants — vice president — and what she thinks her name on the ticket would mean for the future of the Democratic electorate.
With Mr. Biden, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, nearing 78, the question of his running mate has largely been one of experience — who is capable of stepping into the top job on Day 1. It is not a standard that favors the chances of someone with the limited national political résumé of Ms. Abrams, which for some Democrats has made her candid ambition for the nomination off-putting.
Yet to Ms. Abrams, 46, the value of whomever Mr. Biden chooses is not just about experience: It is about signaling which voters the party wants to cultivate, both ahead of November and beyond.
Traditionally, Democrats have sought a vice-presidential pick that appeals to swing voters, those suburban whites whose operative variable is not whether they show up to the polls, but whether they go blue or red upon arrival. Such a priority this year would elevate the appeal of a running mate like Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota or Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan.
But there is another, oft-overlooked slice of the electorate that Ms. Abrams argues is equally crucial to the party’s success, voters who grapple with a different binary: voting Democratic, or not voting at all.
“The focus on persuasion has often been trying to persuade someone to shift from their conservative ideology to a more moderate or liberal ideology,” Ms. Abrams said in an interview. “But for voters of color, it isn’t about shifting ideology — it’s persuading them that voting actually will have an effect.”
These other swing voters, oscillating between voting Democratic or not at all, are the Americans — largely racial minorities and young people — whom Ms. Abrams has devoted her career to reaching. As she explains it, there are overt voter suppression tactics, and then there is this more insidious thread, often unwittingly perpetuated by her own party, that tells this segment of swing voters that they are less worthy of courting.
Melanye Price, a professor of African-American studies and political science at Prairie View A&M University, said what was striking was not so much that Ms. Abrams views these unreliable voters as essential to the Democratic playbook, but that so few party leaders recognize their own role in alienating them. “It’s the biggest failure of the Democratic Party of the last decade,” she said. “I don’t think it’s malicious. I think it’s just benign neglect.”
Credit…Melissa Golden for The New York Times
As the first black woman to run as either major party’s candidate for governor in any state, Ms. Abrams became the face of the issue of voting rights in 2018, after narrowly losing her race to Brian Kemp, a Republican. She argued that racially motivated voter suppression had sealed Mr. Kemp’s victory, and shortly after launched Fair Fight, a PAC dedicated to expanding voter education and ballot access across the United States.
She still lived in her Atlanta townhouse, still read as many as three books at a time for fun (on rotation now: A biography of Huey Long, a novel called “A Place for Us,” and the latest from the sci-fi writer N.K. Jemisin). But she committed herself to the question of civic participation broadly and intensely, crisscrossing the country to raise money and give speeches, and starting another organization to educate voters on the importance of the census.
Since 2018, Fair Fight, along with its nonprofit arm, Fair Fight Action, has raised millions of dollars and funded teams at state Democratic parties across the country. In 2019, for example, Fair Fight helped Kentucky Democrats file a lawsuit that restored to the rolls some 175,000 voters who had been purged by the Republican governor. And amid the pandemic, the organization has shifted its focus to the expansion of voting by mail.
Ms. Abrams stressed that these efforts can matter little if citizens do not buy into the act of voting itself — in other words, if the barrier to participation is not so much a law or policy but a belief that the system has never valued one’s voice to begin with.
For Americans of color, it is often impossible to believe that there are any leaders who “want more for them,” Ms. Abrams said. It is critical, then, for Democrats to commit to persuading these communities that voting is still worth it, that “more and better is possible.”
Allowing disenchantment to fester unchecked, she reiterated, is its own blemish on the party. Few elections underscored the consequences better than in 2016, when black turnout dropped — and in many regions plummeted — contributing to Hillary Clinton’s losses in states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
As Lauren Groh-Wargo, Fair Fight’s chief executive and Ms. Abrams’s former campaign manager, explained it, campaigns often don’t turn to black voters until after Labor Day, sending a cursory crush of mailers following a summer of intensive and individualized outreach to white so-called “persuadables.”
“And then we wonder why, come Election Day, we don’t see the type of African-American enthusiasm and engagement and support levels that we want to win,” she said.
For Ms. Abrams, the issues of access to the vote, and African-American political engagement, are intensely personal.
Storytime for Ms. Abrams and her five siblings growing up in Mississippi and Georgia included the day their father was arrested while trying to register older black voters in Hattiesburg, Miss. He was around 14 or 15 years old, far too young himself to register, “but he knew the fact that he could not even imagine voting was wrong,” Ms. Abrams said.
They learned about the dogs, the police officers, the time that either a cop or an “angry segregationist” — she can’t remember which — shot at her father and clipped his heel. (“My mom was different,” Ms. Abrams said. “She was also involved in activism, we just like to joke she was smart enough not to get caught.”)
Ms. Abrams remembered jumping up the morning of her 18th birthday to register to vote herself, feeling grown up using her Spelman College P.O. Box in Atlanta as her address. She set out a table on campus, clipboard and pen in hand, helping other people register as Bill Clinton ran his first campaign for president.
The story of voter suppression today is no longer the stuff of billy clubs and hoses that Ms. Abrams heard about as a child. But what was once a “very clear, bright line where the government said ‘you cannot,’” Ms. Abrams said, has been replaced with “labyrinthine rules and invisible barriers.”
As Dr. Price sees it, such issues are rarely discussed at the national level in part because voter suppression can be incorrectly viewed as a uniquely Southern menace — and because they don’t think they can win there, she argued, Democrats “don’t take the South seriously.”
The question, then, is at what point Democratic leaders start to incorporate voices like Ms. Abrams’s into the party’s identity, regardless of immediate electoral prospects. “I know what Stacey Abrams feels,” said Representative James E. Clyburn, Democrat of South Carolina and the House majority whip. “I know what it is to operate in Washington, D.C., with people looking upon Southerners as being sort of outside the mainstream.”
“And black Southerners,” he added, “my God.”
Mr. Clyburn, whose endorsement before the South Carolina primary in February helped propel Mr. Biden to the nomination, said Ms. Abrams was “among the 10 or 12 people” he thinks would be “highly qualified” to be Mr. Biden’s running mate, though in a Financial Times interview in late March he questioned whether she had the requisite experience. (“Qualifications are not the problem,” he said in a recent interview with The New York Times. “It’s the chemistry that’s got to be there.”)
Mr. Clyburn said that as the father of three black women, he thought it would be “great” if Mr. Biden picked a black woman, but he did not see it as a “must” — certainly not a political necessity in the same way that he believed Mr. Biden’s pledge to pick a female running mate was.
But he argued that his party should heed Ms. Abrams’s message about the kind of voter it can no longer take for granted. “The South has given too much not to get the respect in return,” he said.
This is, in some ways, the crux of Ms. Abrams’s case for vice president. In her 2018 campaign for governor, in which she achieved record turnout among African-Americans, Latinos, Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders, and young people, Ms. Abrams showed how an investment in such voters — those least likely to show up to the polls and thus most likely to be ignored — could make the Democratic Party competitive even in a state as conservative as Georgia. (She struggled, however, to pick up votes in rural areas.)
All of which may bolster Ms. Abrams’s claim that she knows how to “translate progressive to Southern.” Nevertheless, close as that race may have been, Ms. Abrams lost, meaning her highest-profile political experience remains leading Democrats in the Georgia state legislature.
Donald Trump, of course, upended any traditional notion of what constitutes experience when he won the presidency in 2016. “But what Democrats were looking for this year is the anti-Trump,” said Alan Abramowitz, a political science professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “That was always Biden’s appeal, someone with a lot of national political experience, a sharp contrast to Trump. If anything, that criterion is even more important for vice president, because that person has to be someone who’s ready to serve as president.”
Ms. Abrams, he said, “is just not strong in that area.”
But Ms. Abrams says her qualifications, if not her experience in the strictest sense, stack up with anyone else’s. She’s not worried about surviving a full political vetting, arguing that things like her debt, which she paid off in full last year, are not red flags, but evidence she has “lived a real life.” On foreign policy, she stressed that she had traveled to over a dozen countries “not on vacation, but learning.” And asked if she was prepared to be president on Day 1 if needed, amid a pandemic no less, she answered with an unequivocal “yes.”
Beyond her résumé, critics have questioned Ms. Abrams’s unwillingness to play the game, to act as though her ambition is an afterthought — a candor some Democrats have objected to, especially in light of reports that Mr. Biden does not view her as a top contender. Representative William Lacy Clay, a Missouri Democrat, said in April he found Ms. Abrams’s lobbying for the job “offensive” and “inappropriate.”
But as Ms. Abrams sees it, campaigning on questions of who has a voice, and whose voice is heard, means she is speaking for far more than just herself.
“We know extrapolations are made from single moments,” she said. “Part of my directness in answering the question about V.P. is that I don’t want anyone” — whether a Southerner, an African-American, a woman, or all of the above — “to ever look at my answer and say, ‘Well, if she can’t say it, then I can’t think it.’”