"Don't Panic. Buckle In": Stacey Abrams Doc Filmmakers on Voter Suppression and Homestretch Impact

Stacey Abrams in 'All In.'
Courtesy of Amazon Studios

Stacey Abrams in 'All In.'

'All In' co-directors Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus spent 18 months immersed in the issues of a fragile democracy — and election night trying to channel Abrams' calming message.

On Election Day, Liz Garbus was answering the phones on a voter protection hotline in South Carolina, fielding call after call from voters who had been turned away at the polls there, or who had received mailers telling them to vote in the wrong place. The experience disturbingly mirrored the story Garbus and her co-director, Lisa Cortés, tell in their recent documentary, All In: The Fight for Democracy, which was produced by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams and traces her experience of voter suppression during the 2018 election there. “Answering the hotline in South Carolina was essentially like watching the slow-motion train wreck that we depicted in our film, with problems for low information voters, problems in majority Black and brown counties,” Garbus says. “It was truly heartbreaking to watch it happen.”

When Garbus and Cortés, whose movie premiered on Amazon Prime on Sept. 18, speak by phone Wednesday, the election is still undecided, but news organizations are calling Wisconsin and Michigan for Joe Biden, Georgia is still in play and the Democratic nominee appears to have the clearest path to victory. The filmmakers have just spent 18 months immersed in the story of voter suppression — and Abrams’ efforts to overcome the problem — and they are processing the role the issue may be having in the outcome of the 2020 race. “I'm nervous as all fuck, but I'm just trying to stay hopeful,” Cortés says, of her post-election mindset. 

Garbus has been texting with Abrams’ chief strategist, Chelsey Hall, who is putting out the word to get Georgians to check that their ballots have been received. “Stacey's message over this past couple of weeks was, ‘If it's taking a long time, that means the process is working. They're counting the votes. That's what they need to be doing. Don't panic. Buckle in,’” says Garbus, who spent election night at home in Brooklyn watching returns with her family over pasta. “Of course, as soon as I started watching the Florida map last night, that all went out the window.” According to Garbus, Hall told her: “Black and brown Georgians will not believe anything is over until Stacey Abrams says it's over.”

Through Abrams’ efforts with the New Georgia Project, Garbus says, the activist has registered roughly 500,000 new voters in the state, mostly young people and people of color. “There were those who thought after she was unsuccessful in her gubernatorial race that she should run for the Senate, and sort of bemoan that she didn't do that,” Garbus says. “But what she did was put Georgia on the precipice of turning blue and more importantly, work for a government in Georgia that is truly reflective of its beautiful diverse population.”

Apart from their filmmaking tracking Abrams, both of the All In directors have been deeply engaged in the election themselves. Prior to working the phones in South Carolina, Garbus had canvassed in Philadelphia. Cortés fundraised with the organization Black Women United, to deploy food trucks to key battleground states with long voter lines. After voting at a school in her Harlem neighborhood on election day, Cortés stopped for pastrami, latkes and chicken liver at Russ & Daughters and spent the night attending a virtual watch party with Black Women United. “I spent a lot of time thinking about legacy, ancestors, how progress is slow, but progress is made,” Cortés says. “And how our engagement doesn't stop when the decision has been made. The fire in my belly has always been burning, but it's super stoked now.”

Cortés and Garbus’s film has had a measurable impact on the election. Just under 100,000 people used the movie’s website to do things like verify their registration, request an absentee ballot or volunteer to be a poll worker. Via Amazon’s support, the film has awarded grants to organizations in 10 states to register, educate and mobilize voters, particularly in communities of color and among new voters.

When Garbus was canvassing in Philadelphia over the weekend before the election, she met a 65-year-old Black woman who had gone to check on her polling site and found a sign saying that it had been moved. Garbus checked and found that in fact the polling site had not been moved. “Whoever put it there, they were looking to disenfranchise these Black Philadelphians by sending them to the wrong polling place,” Garbus says. “I saw all of the things that we talk about in our film, from dirty tricks to structural issues.”  The experience crystallized for Garbus the deeper issues at play in the 2020 election than who wins the presidency. “If Biden wins, that's great,” Garbus says. “But … our democracy is just extremely fragile.”