Stacey Abrams speaks Wednesday at the University of New England’s Portland campus. “Voter suppression isn’t guns and hoses and bully clubs and Bull Connor,” she told an audience of 900, referring to the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner who enforced racist policies in the 1960s. “It’s administrative burdens that interfere with your right to vote.” Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Stacey Abrams, the Georgia state legislator who became the first black woman in U.S. history to win a major party gubernatorial nomination, warned a Maine audience Wednesday that officials across the country are using voter suppression to change election results and undermine democracy.

“Voter suppression isn’t guns and hoses and bully clubs and Bull Connor,” Abrams said, referring to the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner who enforced racist policies in the 1960s. “It’s administrative burdens that interfere with your right to vote. In the south they try to stop you from getting on the rolls … and to stay on the rolls … and have your ballot be counted.

“We need our democracy to work, we need poverty to end, we need disenfranchisement to be a thing of the past, because when people are suppressed or oppressed it rages. It may be silent for some time but eventually it will come out.”

Abrams spoke at an event honoring Martin Luther King Jr. at the University of New England’s Portland campus attended by a standing-room-only audience of nearly 900 that included Gov. Janet Mills, whom Abrams called a “dear friend.”

Abrams, a Democrat, lost the 2018 Georgia governor’s race to the just-resigned Secretary of State, Brian Kemp, in a contest she has described as illegitimate. As secretary of state, Kemp had overseen the implementation of some of the country’s strictest voting laws and a purge of 670,000 voter registrations in 2017. His margin of victory was fewer than 55,000 votes, leading Abrams to declare the result tainted.

“I legally acknowledge that Brian Kemp secured a sufficient number of votes under our existing system to become the governor of Georgia,” Abrams told the New York Times Magazine last year. “I do not concede that the process was proper, nor do I condone that process.”

Stacey Abrams speaks at the University of New England. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

In Portland, she described how Georgia and other state governments use a variety of methods to suppress the votes of people they think will vote for the opposition party, especially African-Americans, other minorities and students. Selective polling station closures, subjective screening of whether signatures match from one document to another, and purges of voter rolls, she said, are used to subvert the democratic process.

She said she had chosen not to run for president this year because there were plenty of good candidates and because fighting voter suppression was a better and more consequential use of her time. One of the organizations she founded, Fair Count, seeks to make sure there is a full count of minorities, immigrants and other traditionally undercounted groups.

“The census is the allocation of power in America. It allocates $1.3 trillion a year,” she noted Wednesday, and urged fellow progressives to take a greater interest in its success.

She said she chose not to run for U.S. Senate in Georgia because “I do not want the job. … I prefer the executive branch, because you have the most direct contact with change and have the ability to achieve the change you want to see.”

Abrams, a lawyer and successful romance novelist, is considered a rising star in the Democratic Party for running competitively in a Deep Southern state. In February 2019, she became first African-American woman to deliver an official response to a presidential State of the Union address.

Born to a Mississippi college librarian and a dyslexic shipyard worker who participated in the civil rights movement and later became Methodist ministers, Abrams was largely raised in Atlanta, where she would serve as deputy city attorney. A graduate of Yale Law School, she published eight romance novels under the alias Selma Montgomery before entering state politics and rising to become House minority leader in the Georgia Legislature.

After the Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit that sought to counteract the effects of voter roll purges and other voter disenfranchisement polices in the state by registering minorities, women and young people.

Her eventual gubernatorial rival, Kemp, in 2017 oversaw the cancellation of 100,000 registrations of voters who hadn’t voted in recent elections, according to a study by American Public Media, and set aside 53,000 others for review under an “exact match” policy that required information on registration applications precisely match those on other official records, including hyphenations and spacing between last names, which the state department of motor vehicles didn’t allow. Seventy percent of these voters were African American.

“It was like the New England Patriots let Tom Brady be the referee,” Abrams told the Portland audience, speaking of the conflict of interest Kemp had in overseeing a election he was participating in.

Critics of the management of the 2018 gubernatorial election, including some of the Democratic presidential candidates, have said voter suppression cost Abrams the election. Kemp has dismissed the criticism as Democrats “playing politics.”

Abrams’s appearance was part of UNE’s annual MLK Jr. Celebration, held in honor of Dr. Martin Luther King’s May 1964 visit to St. Francis College, UNE’s Biddeford precursor, in his only visit to Maine. “For people on campus at that time his visit represented a really special moment,” UNE president James Herbert told the audience Wednesday.

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