Before he left office, former President Trump spent weeks making false claims of massive voter fraud in the 2020 election, alleging that’s what cost him victory.
On November 27, for example, Trump implied in a tweet that chicanery had taken place in Detroit (“…more votes than people!”), Philadelphia, Atlanta and Milwaukee. “Not surprisingly,” he wrote, “they are located in the most important swing states, and are long known for being politically corrupt!”
Notice how he placed emphasis on urban, majority Black areas. Raising unfounded fears about African-American voting takes a page from an old playbook, one that has been used repeatedly to justify voter suppression. The Oscar-contending documentary All In: The Fight for Democracy, directed and produced by Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés and produced by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, explores the long history of attempts to keep Black people from having their ballots counted or even voting at all.
‘All In: The Fight For Democracy’ Directors On Stacey Abrams, Defeating
“Donald Trump is the most perfect example of it in recent memory because he did his voter suppression out loud and every day. He was very clear about who he didn’t want to include,” Abrams tells Deadline. “He says in early 2020, ‘If certain communities get to vote, [I] couldn’t win…’ He believed, rightly so, that full engagement of communities of color would lead to his loss.”
In 1870, the 15th Amendment ostensibly granted Black men the right to vote (the franchise was extended to all women by passage of the 19th amendment in 1920). But All In demonstrates how access to the ballot box was wrested away from African-Americans.
“You get to the early 1900s and you have the reign of terror from the Ku Klux Klan,” Debo Adegbile, an attorney and member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, notes in the film. “What you see is almost a total purge in lots of the states of the former Confederacy in Black political participation, at the butt of a gun, at the butt of threats of violence, through lynching and chaos.”
The documentary contains a section on the seminal 1915 D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation, that glorified the KKK and ridiculed Black legislators elected to power during the Reconstruction era.
“Birth of a Nation…was a piece of propaganda that reflected society’s fears about any kind of Black power,” Garbus notes. “And I feel like the kind of videos we see coming out from Trump, the accusations around voter fraud, reflect or are touching on the very same kind of racial anxieties that we saw back then. It is a continuum, and that kind of propaganda has been geared to rile up the masses, stoke racial division, which is obviously still very much alive and raw in this country.”
In the Jim Crow era, African-Americans were systematically disenfranchised through the use of poll taxes, literacy tests, intimidation and violence. Today, the techniques are slightly more subtle, like voter ID laws—a “solution” to a non-existent problem, that of huge numbers of people supposedly showing up at the polls impersonating registered voters.
“The specter of [voter] fraud which people are now calling the big lie…fueled those ID laws,” Garbus maintains. “It may not be the billy club, it may be a very narrow set of voter ID laws, but they have the same effect, which is to silence either by force or by bureaucracy the votes of those who are seen as challenging the status quo or, as Stacey [Abrams] has said, ‘non-normative’ population.”
Abrams’ 2018 campaign for governor fell prey to voter suppression, in the minds of many political observers. Her Republican opponent, Brian Kemp, ran against her while simultaneously serving as Georgia’s secretary of state; in that capacity he purged 1.3 million people from the voting rolls between 2012 and 2018. The documentary shows how Abrams spent the two years after her defeat engaged in a major voter registration drive among minority communities, believing Democrats could win statewide in a place generally thought to be as red as the clay of Georgia.
“She saw this. She saw this possibility,” Cortés insists. “I always think of her…and her plan and her vision and her great sense of strategy.”
Abrams and her allies in the trenches accomplished the unthinkable, turning Georgia blue in November for Joe Biden. Earlier this month, her voter registration efforts helped propel Democratic candidates to success in two U.S. Senate runoff elections against Republican incumbents. Those victories secured Democratic control of the senate.
“I was incredibly overjoyed and grateful to have the opportunity to be a part of making that history happen,” Abrams says. “We want to see democracy work again, so I’m doing my part.”
She tells Deadline she wants to see the new Biden administration take up the banner of voting rights.
“Passing the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act is a critical piece…What that would do is restore the ability…to require review of voting rights laws that could impede the right to vote. But that’s not enough,” Abrams observes, urging national standards that would guarantee the right to vote by mail, for instance. “There are lists of things that we can do to right-size our democracy to make certain that it is a uniform democracy. It doesn’t remove from the states their ability to enforce it, but it does remove from the states their ability to decide who gets democracy and who doesn’t.”
Many Republicans, Trump chief among them, remain adamantly opposed to vote by mail or any efforts to expand the franchise. From retirement in Florida, the former president may continue to vent about voter fraud, a myth that convinced some of his ardent supporters to storm the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.
“What it comes down to is a power struggle,” Cortés contends. “How do you hold on to your power? You create myths that you share to those people who are most susceptible to leaning into it. And what’s so unfortunate is there is no statistical information that validates this story of voter fraud.”
All In, from Amazon Studios and production company Story Syndicate, is streaming on Amazon Prime. With voter suppression a fixture of American politics, it’s poised to remain relevant far into the future.