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Stacey Abrams: A lesson in political participation

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Supporters of US President-elect Joe Biden hold signs with Jon Ossoff and Stacy Abrams as they wait for his arrival outside Center Parc Stadium in Atlanta, Georgia, on January 4, 2021. – President Donald Trump, still seeking ways to reverse his election defeat, and President-elect Joe Biden converge on Georgia on Monday for dueling rallies on the eve of runoff votes that will decide control of the US Senate. Trump, a day after the release of a bombshell recording in which he pressures Georgia officials to overturn his November 3 election loss in the southern state, is to hold a rally in the northwest city of Dalton in support of Republican incumbent senators Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue. Biden, who takes over the White House on January 20, is to campaign in Atlanta, the Georgia capital, for the Democratic challengers, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. (Photo by JIM WATSON / AFP)

Recently, David Axelrod, a former Senior Adviser to President Barack Obama, published an op-ed on Brad Raffensperger. Raffensperger is the Secretary of State of Georgia and a member of the Republican party.

In his op-ed, Axelrod likened the refusal of Raffensperger in a recorded telephone conversation to cave to the request of the President of the US, Donald J. Trump to ‘find’ him enough votes to overturn the November 4, 2020, presidential election results in the State of Georgia as an act of uncommon political courage. Raffensperger’s refusal was disappointing to President Trump and predictably drew the ire of the President.

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Part of the backlash between Raffensperger and President Trump is the threat it poses to the political future of the former. Axelrod argued that the political audacity of Raffensperger in standing up to President Trump, fit the rare kind of political courage described in John F. Kennedy’s depiction in his book, ‘Profiles in Courage’. However, in my view, Raffensperger did what he was constitutionally duty bound to do-live up to the oath of his office to protect the integrity of the elections in Georgia.
 
Beyond Raffensperger’s political fearlessness, Abrams is the heroin of the Georgia political revolution that put the State in play. The effects of her efforts leading to the elections are momentous and far-reaching. Abrams is a political operative and former gubernatorial candidate for the Democratic party in the last governorship elections in Georgia two years ago. She lost the gubernatorial elections narrowly. Abrams political activities after the loss laid the foundation that made it difficult, if not impossible, to challenge or overturn the results of the elections in Georgia.
 
After the presidential election results were declared in Georgia, a hitherto Republican party stronghold for almost three decades, President Trump led a charge to overturn the results. The objections to the presidential election results in Georgia went through the American court system and the US Congress. The court decisions and congressional certification of the presidential election results came to the conclusion that President Trump had lost in Georgia. It should be noted that the objections over the presidential election results in Georgia are allowed by the American Constitution and age-long political institutions. However, inactivating this process, the system favours challenges that are credible and backed with evidence that passes a legal test.

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A major weakness of President Trump’s challenge in Georgia is the failure to present evidence of substantial voter fraud in the manner alleged by the President. Even so, the most intriguing political development in Georgia is the Democratic party’s victory in the special and run-off elections for its two Senate seats that effectively gave control of the US Senate to the opposition.
 
Abrams, a Spelman College and Yale Law School alumnus, is the first African-American woman to be nominated in a governor’s race in America. She understood the political power that comes from expanding the political space and encouraging political participation from the grassroots. Many a time, the American political process has been criticized for voter suppression in different parts of the country in ways that are largely unfavourable to people of colour. Voter suppression is a political strategy that has been allegedly used to stifle political interest and discourage political participation. Drawing from her own experience during her gubernatorial run, when she claimed that for an election, she lost by 55,000 votes, her opponent at the time who was the Secretary of State and current Governor of Georgia, cancelled thousands of voter registrations and purged more than 1.2 million voters from the rolls, majority of whom were people of colour. This was eye-opening for Abrams. Instead of sulking at the loss of an election, she believed she could have won convincingly as a candidate of the Democratic party, in a what has arguably been a Republican State since Bill Clinton won it in 1992, Abrams used her loss as a call to action to mobilize and take advantage of a political opportunity.
 
Undaunted that the State of Georgia has been a Republican stronghold for almost three decades, she redoubled her efforts and expanded the work of ‘The Georgia Project.’ She founded the Project in 2013 to promote and carry out voter registration in Georgia. Her work, in liaison with other organizations with similar objectives, encouraged political participation by providing political education, awareness about the role of government, and projecting the power of the voter. As a political operative, she also deployed resources to advocate for electoral reforms. Abrams reported that through her work, she registered more than one million voters many of them under the age of 30 and sympathetic to the Democratic party prior to the November 4, 2020, and January 5, 2021, Senatorial elections in Georgia. The most significant voter registration was among minority groups including African African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians-Americans.

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Given that President-elect Joe Biden, a Democrat, won Georgia with less than 12,000 votes, and the Senatorial races were decided with less than 52,000 votes, any political observer can imagine the power and the influence of the work of Abrams. Her efforts turned Georgia blue for the Democratic party through expanded political awareness and participation. This development might as well be the beginning of the transformation of Georgia to a swing state in future elections. Still, the best lesson to draw from the American election experience in Georgia is that expanded political participation and voter education is a panacea to revolutionize any political process to kill political apathy and replace same with an informed electorate that can drastically demand and drive change.
 
The political template of Abrams in Georgia who experienced discrimination and the effects of political suppression should be employed from Lagos to Adamawa and Delta to the Sokoto States to encourage and expand political education and participation.

Most especially in States where there are legitimate questions about the performance of government and elected political officeholders. On many levels, it is valid to question whether governments at any level have performed satisfactorily to provide basic amenities and the dividends of democracy in Nigeria since the commencement of the Fourth Republic.

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In today’s political permutations leading to the general elections in 2023 in Nigeria, this debate is necessary and urgent. But one cannot begin to have a proper discussion on these issues with an electorate that is plagued with political apathy and limited political awareness. The electoral reforms being championed at the National Assembly to create the opportunities for credible elections at all levels in Nigeria will fail in the absence of any effort to expand the political space and pursue voter education.

The lesson from Georgia through the work of Abrams is a vindication of my position expressed in a recent radio interview in Delta State. I argued that to revolutionize any political system, we must expand the voter base and ask the right questions of our elected officeholders at all levels of government about their delivery of good governance.
 
An informed electorate proceeds with the knowledge that the resources of government are a commonwealth that must be deployed to provide the basics of economic development- security of lives and property, electricity, good roads, education, healthcare, and good governance. The multiplier effects of these basics will contribute to economic development and make corruption less attractive in Nigeria. What worked in Georgia through the work of Abrams, is a further reinforcement of the principle that voter education and participation is the best key to any political revolution and change. As a nation, we cannot solve Nigeria’s problems with rhetoric, our best opportunity at finding the best solutions begins with political awareness and expanded participation.
  
Thus, when the political history of Georgia in the context of November 4, 2020, presidential and the US Senate special and run-off elections is written, it will give more credit to Abrams than Raffensperger.
  
Dr. Okpe, a lawyer and Public Affairs Analyst wrote from Abuja.

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