Abrams’ response was to a question from Sydney Smith ’22 about whether voting alone could remedy continued systemic violence inflicted on Black people.
Abrams likened voting to chemotherapy in trying to explain its partial ability to combat social ills. “We have the cancer of poverty, the cancer of racism, the cancer of inhumanity, we have the cancer of systemic injustice. And we keep seeing a recurrence of it,” she said. “We never seem to go fully into remission and part of the treatment is painful. It’s almost as painful as the disease itself, but voting is a part of it.”
The discussion took place during a virtual panel hosted by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs and featuring Abrams, Producer and Director of “All In: The Fight for Democracy” Liz Garbus ’92 and Watson Institute Director Edward Steinfeld P’20. The panel discussion followed a virtual screening of “All In,” which explores historic and modern-day voter suppression in the United States, and covered topics including voting rights and social activism during heated times in American politics.
Abrams lost the race for Georgia governor to former Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp in 2018 after a controversial count of the vote and accusations of voter suppression. Following the contentious election, Abrams was thrust into the national spotlight as a champion for voter rights.
But Abrams said that voting, while a part of political action, cannot stand alone. She said that protest is another useful tool in achieving change, as well as attending local governance meetings and showing up in “the halls of power.”
Abrams discussed her own efforts as an undergraduate student at Spelman College to attend local zoning committee meetings and protest against zoning laws that had put “liquor stores every five feet” within a housing development next to her college.
During the panel discussion, LaTausha Rogers GS, a student in the Master of Public Affairs program at Watson Institute, asked Abrams about how she stays motivated in light of the continued disenfranchisement of Black and brown voters.
Abrams said she takes hope from the progress the United States has made over the years in achieving greater rights for members of Black and brown communities. “I want people to be angry about how far we still have to go, but I want them to take comfort in the fact that we have come so far already,” she said.
Also at the panel, Garbus discussed how she started work on producing the film, mentioning that when she was first approached about doing the project she thought it was a prank call. When she realized the opportunity was real, Garbus said she was overjoyed. “It was a dream come true,” she said. “As a white American, I hadn’t encountered a lot of problems with voting. But I understood early on that that was a privilege, not a fact for Americans.”
Abrams also commented on the unique power of film, drawing on her recent experience watching the documentary with her 14-year-old niece. The power of film, she said, is its ability “to give you an hour and 30 minutes of information that makes you want to spend a lifetime trying to act.”
In response to a question from Jesse Hogan ’24 about political disillusionment among young people and the refusal of some to vote, Abrams stressed the importance of being honest about what voting can and cannot do.
“Voting is not magic. Part of the disillusionment happens because we think an election is going to transform the outcome of our lives and it just doesn’t work that way,” she said. “Victory in an election doesn’t make bad people go away; they just retrench and find a new way in.”
Abrams also spoke to the significance of lower-ballot races and local politics in achieving change. “We’ve got to be authentic and intentional about connecting the dots so people know who to hold accountable,” she said, adding that the most consequential, yet overlooked, aspect of the political process is local elections.
“We have to stop focusing so exclusively on the top that we ignore the middle, and we don’t understand that the fine print on a ballot is where most of the problems happen,” Abrams said.
Before signing off, Abrams discussed avenues for action in assisting voter registration efforts. Abrams encouraged those interested in supporting voting rights to visit Allinforvoting.com, a social impact campaign created by Abrams and the filmmakers with the help of Amazon Studios. The social impact campaign offers volunteers several ways to get involved, including volunteering as a poll worker, working as a poll monitor or sharing their voter suppression story.