Democrats' post-election battles signal larger fight over voting rights ahead
Posted November 18, 2018 8:03 a.m. EST
(CNN) — Count every vote.
In Florida, Democrat Andrew Gillum preached it to supporters up and down the state. Throughout the week, Stacey Abrams, his counterpart in Georgia, pushed new ads with the same demand.
Both Gillum and Abrams lost their respective races for governor. But their message, as the recounts and lawsuits wind down, is expected to endure and, with a Democratic House majority headed to Washington, escalate ahead of the coming presidential cycle.
Emboldened by their midterm successes and enraged by the handling of elections in Florida and Georgia, Democrats are now girding for what many on the left view as an existential fight over voting rights across the country. The court decisions handed down over the past few days, as Florida Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson fought to expand the scope of the recount and Abrams sued to bring more ballots into the mix, are likely to shape future Democratic campaigns in Republican-held states with restrictive voting laws.
The returns to date have offered the party new reason for hope -- and cause for continued concern. Faced with a rapid-fire succession of legal challenges, judges have refused to strike down or roll back laws Democrats argue were designed to disenfranchise minorities and the poor. But the courts have also been willing to offer relief to narrowly affected voter groups, like the thousands snagged by Florida's "signature match" law, who were allowed an extra few days to clear their ballots.
Let America Vote, the nonprofit started by former Missouri Secretary of State Jason Kander, has been frustrated by the outcomes, but pleased to see the sun shining on the process.
"What this has really highlighted is that there are probably a bunch of people in Florida who have been disenfranchised in past elections and didn't even know it," Abe Rakov, Let America Vote's chairman, told CNN. "But now that this election is so close, and people are making sure that every eligible vote is being counted, it's being highlighted."
After withdrawing his election night concession last weekend, Gillum in Florida hammered home the message in both interviews with national liberal outlets and to supporters across the state.
On Tuesday night at St. Mark AME Church in Orlando, Gillum, whose term as Tallahassee mayor ends next week, cast the stakes of the ongoing recount efforts -- and his push to find and count every valid vote -- in imposing historical terms.
"We've got to demand a more perfect union, we have to demand a process that is more fair," Gillum said. "We have to reject the belief that a signature difference is enough for somebody's entire vote to be dismissed. We've got to get rid of these arbitrary deadlines."
The messaging around the fight has worked.
Nelson's recount effort has raised $2.5 million off a string of emails from top Democratic lawmakers. Republican Gov. Rick Scott, his challenger and the leader in their tight race, brought in just $1.4 million over the same period. The spread has also confirmed for Democratic leaders that their vaunted small-dollar donor base remains fired up and ready to spend on candidates willing to fight -- even when the odds are against them.
Gillum refused to re-concede his race on Thursday despite the completion -- in all but one county -- of a machine recount that confirmed Republican Ron DeSantis's lead. In a statement, Gillum pointed to both failures by some counties deliver updated results and arguments made by Democrats in court as his reason for continuing on.
"Voters need to know that their decision to participate in this election, and every election, matters," he said. "It is not over until every legally-cast vote is counted."
Gillum ultimately offered his concession on Saturday evening.
But Gillum's message to voters hints at sharper anxieties shared by Democrats around the country: that voters will be discouraged by the unfolding events in Florida and Georgia, and turnout numbers, up this year, will drop again. Abrams, in a fiery speech on Friday evening, first ended her campaign for governor, then announced the creation of a new voting rights PAC that in the coming days plans to launch what she described as a "major federal lawsuit against the state of Georgia for the gross mismanagement of this election and to protect future elections from unconstitutional actions."
Abrams also leveled another round of stinging accusations against her GOP rival, former Secretary of State Brian Kemp, saying that under his watch, "democracy failed Georgia."
"Georgia still has a decision to make about who will we be in the next election. And the one after that. And the one after that," Abrams said, looking ahead that next round of races. "So we have used this election and its aftermath to diagnose what has been broken in our process."
Democrats worry that anything less than a robust and well-funded fight in the aftermath of these contested 2018 elections will encourage President Donald Trump and loyal elected officials like Kemp, who over nearly a decade as Georgia's chief elections officials helped set in place the rules for a gubernatorial contest he would both run in and oversee.
Kemp stepped down from his position after the voting, and most of the vote-counting, was over. But on the Sunday before Election Day, his office lobbed baseless charges of voter database hacking at Georgia Democrats, while his campaign piled on -- creating a confusing swirl of accusations that, given Kemp's day job, might have appeared to carry more weight than those of typical, if outlandish, claims by a candidate.
Trump is a good bet, if his first campaign was any indication, to employ similar tactics in the run-up to -- and, potentially, the aftermath of -- the 2020 election. That his conspiratorial comments about the Florida election have been so easily adopted by the previously Trump-shy Scott -- who was admonished by a federal judge for "(toeing) the line between imprudent campaign trail rhetoric and problematic state action" -- is viewed by voting rights advocates as a sign of things to come.
"This is President Trump laying the groundwork for 2020, to make sure his supporters will call into question the results of the election if he doesn't win," Rakov said. "He's using this situation to further himself. He doesn't care about having one more senator in Washington, he just wants people to start getting the idea that election results aren't real."
On Wednesday, both Trump and Florida Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz, one of his most ardent backers on Capitol Hill, took turns trying to stoke fears over Democratic efforts in Florida.
The President sent a fundraising email with a subject line, "NON-CITIZENS VOTING?" and a claim below that "Democrats are trying to overturn our Republican victories in Florida."
Gaetz, meanwhile, in an interview with Breitbart, claimed Nelson's ongoing court challenges were the precursor to a presidential heist.
"If the Democrats are able to learn now what techniques work and don't work, what transparency laws are going to be followed and which ones aren't, then it gives them a road map on how to steal the election from Donald Trump in 2020," he said.
In an interview after Gaetz's comments began to spread, Maryland Democratic Rep. John Sarbanes, pointing to new legislation being crafted by House Democrats, offered a more mundane explanation.
"What we're trying to do is create a roadmap for how to protect people's vote and their voice everywhere in this country," Sarbanes said. "If we can learn something from challenging these deficiencies in our voting process (in Florida) and our voting system in this country, you're putting together a handbook not to steal elections but to have elections be an accurate reflection of the will and the voice of the people."
Sarbanes and other Democrats will introduce a host of "democracy reforms" to kick off the new Congress. One key piece is automatic voter registration, which would add eligible voters to the rolls unless they chose to opt out.
With Republicans adding to their majority in the Senate, the Democratic-backed measure is a near-lock to disappear once it reaches the upper chamber. Sarbanes understands the math but is hoping the optics will prompt a backlash against the Senate GOP and, eventually, the President.
"If you come with a strong, big bang declaration right out of the gate, the fact that Mitch McConnell and the Republican Senate ignore it just makes the contrast even clearer," Sarbanes said.
The argument to voters, he added, was this: "You gave us the gavel in the House and we showed that you that we're committed to those things. Give us the gavel in the Senate and we'll do it there. Give us a pen in the White House and we'll do it there."