In the final days of the American presidential election, terms like “chart-throb” and “razor-thin” were ubiquitous. So was “Georgia” and “Stacey Abrams.” After her 2018 gubernatorial race in that state, the voting rights activist emerged as the nation’s strongest voice against voter suppression. Those efforts became the centerpiece of “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a documentary directed by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés that Amazon released this fall. At the time, Abrams explained to IndieWire why she was furious with the state of voter suppression in America and how the gutting of the Voter Rights Act impacted the electoral process.
Now, even as President-elect Joe Biden seems likely to triumph in Georgia, the state is poised to consume headlines about its upcoming elections for weeks to come. IndieWire got on the phone with “All In” directors Garbus and Cortés to get their insight into the latest coda to their movie.
You spent so much time with Stacey Abrams and understand her story better than most people. How did her investment in voter turnout across Georgia play out in your estimation?
LIZ GARBUS: Stacey’s optimism and conviction about Georgia voters certainly was infectious. But in this day and age, we knock wood before we tell anyone not to worry. What Stacey did has been going for the past decade, first with The New Georgia Project, and then for the past two years with Fair Right is is just deeply patriotic. That’s often not a word used by liberals. It’s a kind of belief in the Democratic process and that, by expanding it, we can create a better future. That’s the most beautiful thing. And she’s putting in the work to make it so.
LISA CORTES: I think the intention was always, as Stacey has said, to ignite, educate, and inform people with this film. So many of the testimonials that we’ve heard are from people who said they thought they knew the history. Once they understood the imprint of the past on the present day, it definitely filled the fire in their bellies and stoked their indignation. I think that’s a part of the cyclical nature of this film. When it came out, that was the conversation that it created with so many different communities.
I was inspired to volunteer for phone banking in this election after watching your movie. So, kudos. What sort of impact were you hoping to have?
LG: I hoped that the film did that. I’ve been volunteering in elections for the past four or five cycles, but I stepped it up this election. Because of Amazon’s commitment to marketing this film to non-traditional documentary audiences, I think it helped with the conviction people had to say, “I’m going to wait in line for five hours if that’s what it takes.” It was so important to understand the challenges ahead — an understanding of how the system has been broken, but our rights as Americans aren’t.
Given that “All In” outlines many voter suppression tactics, what did you make of the way those forces manifested during the election?
LC: We saw some of the same old tropes showing up — the long lines of poll closures, misdirection and misinformation, and people told that they weren’t registered. Through time, the intention hasn’t changed — this desire to dissuade specific communities, black and brown and young, from voting. We saw all of those things that we talked about in the film happening to people in real time.
LG: When we first met with Stacey, she brought in piles of piles of papers from her election. They were testimonials of folks filling out their affidavits, which was part of Stacey’s lawsuit, about what happened to them when they went to vote in Georgia in 2018. It was very much like the things you saw in the film: what happened to Stacey Abrams when she went to vote, which was that she was told she had already voted. Because she was Stacey Abrams, obviously she managed to get through that. But the non-lawyer, the non-gubernatorial candidate, and people who don’t have a CNN camera behind them certainly might not have been able to do that.
Of course, voter suppression is a much bigger problem than one state. What did you make of the way these challenges cropped up nationwide?
LG: In Georgia, they have obviously done a tremendous job at fixing some of these problems and addressing them. But it is still a massive problem.
We saw these things happen in real time. This weekend, I was working at a South Carolina voter protection line. I had a young woman calling me who said she had shown up early to vote, she had waited for four hours in line, she had gotten there and she was told she wasn’t registered. I had access to the South Carolina database, so I looked it up, and there she was, registered plain as day. But what happened? She had to leave and go to work.
We were in Pennsylvania canvassing and I met a woman named Mona who said she was so excited to vote and she was in Pennsylvania. She didn’t want to trust the mail. She wanted to vote in person on election day. She said she had gone to the school where she normally votes the day before election day. This was the day I was there, on Monday, to just check out the scene. And there was a sign on the door saying her polling place had moved.
In fact, that sign was there in error. Her polling place had not moved. But she had told 15 on her Facebook chat that it had. So just because she was on my list and I knocked on the door and happened to get her at home, I was able to give her the good information.
This was in a Black Philadelphia neighborhood. This is the kind of thing that is happening in Pennsylvania, it’s happening in South Carolina. And the thing that I find sort of interesting about this moment, when people are talking about Democrats underperforming — you know, with people like Jaime Harrison or Sara Gideon — why aren’t we talking about voter suppression? I’m not saying it would’ve made enough of a difference to put them over the top, but it certainly has to be part of the conversation. In my four or five days of volunteering, I can give you dozens and dozens of examples, and I’m just one person. We need to restore the Voting Rights Act. Otherwise, these kinds of tactics are going to continue with impunity.
LC: It’s unfortunate there’s so much of this public messaging from the president about voter fraud, since there isn’t. It’s unfortunate that has become a headline based on no factual information and a commission that was disbanded because they had nothing to report.
Over the course of this interview, Mitch McConnell has decided to throw his support behind Trump’s baseless claims of fraud. Should we start freaking out now?
LG: I tend to get a little hot under the collar, but I think what Stacey would say is that it’s just noise, and we need to move forward with our plans. Georgia is in the margins of a recount, and it will be recounted. We move forward with belief and with optimism. It’s hard to always feel that way. It can be scary when our democracy is being undermined like this. But even the Georgia secretary of state said our election outcome is clear. And he’s a Republican. Stacey’s belief is that we’re moving forward, the process is going to work, and we just need to give it the time.
LC: We have to lean into the democratic process. There is a process that is not dictated by whimsy. It is clearly outlined and that’s what’s happening. We haven’t called the outstanding states until victory is clear for either individual. This is the time to lean into democracy.
Let’s talk about Florida since you deal with it in the movie. You explain the history of voter suppression with respect to former felons’ right to vote and how the fees imposed on them becomes a disincentive. Well, Florida went red, even though Michael Bloomberg spent over $100 million covering some of those fees.
LG: It’s unfortunate that there are over a million returning citizens in Florida who should have been able to vote. Even with the influx of support to pay their outstanding fines, they still were not able to vote due to bureaucracy and other restrictions that were put in place to prevent them from registering on time. It was super-gratifying that Desmond Meade, who founded the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition, was actually able to vote for the first time. But there are so many others who were not able to do that.
Have you spoken to Stacey since the election was called for Biden?
LG: We texted with Stacey. She did record an introduction to a BAFTA Q&A for us. She has been extraordinary. She is truly doing a billion things. I think her position is that the process is working and we just have to keep focus.
Georgia is heading to two big runoffs that will now become the big election story of the country. Do you wish you were still working on the movie so you could capture this part of the story?
LG: When Lisa and I had to lock picture on this film in the summer, things kept happening. One of the first big stories after we locked was the Postal Service debacle and Trump’s suspicions that they were messing with the Postal Service in order to affect the mail-in ballots. People said, “Aren’t you worried that this isn’t in your film?” I wasn’t. It’s the same old story being told with a different tune: power trying to cling desperately to itself by disenfranchising people rather than including them or creating a platform that’s appealing to them. And it’s going to happen in Georgia again. I believe the film is up to date without the latest news breaks.
But I do think the story is changing in Georgia. We’ve seen the work of the New Georgia Project. We’ve seen the engagement with voters. We’ve seen people coming to the process who never thought it was for them. So I do think the story is changing there and I think there are two great candidates running on the Democratic side. I hope “All In” continues to be part of the conversation in that people cling and protect this right that has been so hard fought for, so hard won.
I have heard from many people wondering how they should get involved in the runoffs. Do you sign up to volunteer for Fair Fight? Donate to the individual campaigns? What is the best next step here?
LC: There are numerous ways to help in Georgia. Obviously there are donations to the campaigns, or Fair Fight, or the New Georgia Project. There’s also Black Voters Matter and Georgia STAND-UP. With any of these, you’re supporting the Democratic candidates. As for the Georgia recount, I think that the Fair Fight website is probably a great starting place to help get an understanding of how you can support.
OK, so we’re going to have the Biden Administration. What does it need to do to address the concerns in your movie?
LG: We need to win the Senate. That John Lewis Voting Rights Act bill is sitting on Mitch McConnell’s desk as we speak. These Senate races are crucial. If we don’t get the Senate, then I hope that we can address the the pre-clearance clause of the Voting Rights Act, which made it automatic that any state law changes had to come to the federal government first. If we have an Attorney General’s office that is dedicated to preserving voting rights, it can pursue laws that are discriminatory in the states. So I think the Senate is hugely important, but it’s also important to have an Attorney General who sees voting rights as a priority.
LG: I don’t know what Stacey wants to do, but she would be an extraordinary Attorney General.
Have you asked her about this?
LG: Well, no.
LC: We know she’s focused on other areas.
This conversation obviously has a pro-Democratic bent, but voting rights shouldn’t be a partisan issue. What sort of interactions have you had with audiences across the aisle?
LG: There was a funny attack that we received from a lawmaker in Georgia accusing Stacey of all of her pro-abortion discourse in our film. It was sort of hilarious because of course we don’t address reproductive choice in our film. I probably shouldn’t say this, but the film hasn’t really been attacked by the right. I think that’s a credit to our great fact-checkers.
LC: Remember what Stacey said after her campaign — it wasn’t that she did not win in Georgia, it’s that the people of Georgia were denied. I think that is the conversation that is so important. Maybe you have some friends voting for the other candidate. At least they’re voting. At least they had the access. That is really what we all need.
Early voting in Georgia begins December 14, with a deadline for registration on December 7. “All In: The Fight for Democracy” is now streaming on Amazon.