Stacey Abrams is fighting for her vision of an equitable America — and it starts with making sure the youngest among us are seen by those in power.
The former Georgia state representative, who gained national prominence when she ran for governor in 2018, knows firsthand how voter access can impact a race. After she narrowly lost, her opponent, Brian Kemp, faced accusations of voter suppression, a practice that historically targets minority voters. (Kemp, who served as Secretary of State during the race, denied the claims.) Abrams’s supporters contend that she was robbed of the gubernatorial seat, which would have made her the first Black woman to serve as governor in United States history.
In the wake of her loss, Abrams founded a few organizations committed to fighting for a fair and representative democracy. Among them is Fair Count, an organization working to empower hard-to-count populations, including young people and people of color, to fill out the 2020 census. That matters because the census happens once every 10 years — and the U.S. government’s attempt to count everyone in the country, no matter their age, immigration status, or identity, helps determine the amount of funding to allot each region over the next decade. Census data is also used to divide up seats in Congress and votes in the Electoral College, which can sustain far-reaching effects on elections.
The census’s timing could not be more paramount, given that the current coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated the already-critical need to address the climate crisis, the U.S. health care system, and other urgent issues which the census’s findings can influence. During a recent Skype discussion, Abrams talked to MTV News about how the 2020 census could change young people’s lives, from the fight to eradicate gerrymandering to providing solutions for overcrowded classrooms and more.
MTV News: You've been known for your work in advocating for voter access, especially in Georgia. So what does the census have to do with voting rights?
Stacey Abrams: I started Fair Count around the same time I started Fair Fight. I conceived of it right after the 2018 election because not getting the job of governor did not exempt me from the work that I thought I was responsible for: Protecting our people and making sure as many people can participate as possible. We know about going to vote, but how we vote and the options we have are determined by the census every 10 years.
The census does two really critical things: One, it allocates $1.5 trillion that is used to pay for things like beds in hospitals or school lunches or Pell grants. But the other thing it does is it reapportions how many congressional leaders each state has and it draws the political lines that let us get to decide who our leaders are. The problem is, if we don't have an accurate census, [then] some of us never get a real choice because they don't draw the lines to include us.
MTV News: What are some programs the census funds that would affect young people the most?
Abrams: Let's start with Head Start. For a lot of communities, Head Start is not only education, it's daycare. And the number of kids that are going to be in Head Start are determined by the number of babies being born right now.
And if you don't want your youth in an overcrowded classroom — and a lot of us went to school with overcrowded classrooms or in trailers — they start counting how many kids are going to be in classrooms in 20, 30 years by looking at the numbers they have in 2020. So if you don't get counted, you're gonna be in overcrowded classrooms for the next 10 years.
And then when you get ready to go to college, assuming you got a good education, the Pell grants — money that helps you pay for college — are determined by the census. They allocate the funds by how many young people are likely to go. Decisions that you may think about today will be decided for you. Say you have an 8-year-old brother or sister. In 2020, the government is going to count how many 8-year-olds there are. So by 2030, they will have already decided how much money will be available when that child gets ready to go to college.
MTV News: Speaking of Pell grants, we know college students are among the most likely to be undercounted. How do you think the current coronavirus pandemic might affect what's going to happen?
Abrams: Now, here's the reality: The official responsibility is that your college should count you where you are. But it's estimated that only about 60 percent of colleges actually do it. At the same time, your parents are told not to count you at home. So if your college doesn't count and you and your parents don't count you, you're invisible. That means you don't get the Pell grant money you need. You don't get access to the services you might need if you need help with housing — and housing dollars come from the census. So if you have to live off campus, the census helps to decide how much housing is available.
So here's what I say: If you're in a household where you live with your parents, have them count you. If you happen to be double-counted, the census has a process to delete duplicates. They can get rid of one of the numbers — but it's much easier to get rid of something than it is to add something. Because once the census is done, it is done. There is no do-over.
MTV News: Fair Count is doing a lot to make sure that people without access to the internet or computers can complete the census, as this is the first time that the census is being conducted online. How is the strategy changing now that so many people are advised not to go out in public?
Abrams: We’re using a lot of social distancing, but we still are encouraging people who need access to go online to use it. There are call centers that are available so you can call to fill out the census. The problem is people aren't necessarily staffing the call centers because call centers tend to be packed pretty tightly. So [in places where] we've put the internet in place, we're encouraging the people in charge of those community spaces to be very careful about who they encourage to come in and to use social distancing where they have to.
But that's why we're so eager to get as many people as possible to fill it out as early as they can. The more people we can get to do it now, that gives us more opportunity to reach out to the people who don't get it done as we move forward.
MTV News: What would you want to see the federal government doing differently right now in regard to the census?
Abrams: I think that we have seen more advertisements about it. But what I need people to understand — and what I wish the federal government was explaining — is that there is no do-over. Even though COVID-19 is a pandemic that is forcing people to change their behaviors, the Constitution doesn't change and the Constitution says it has to be done this year.
Now, what the federal government needs to do is make sure they lengthen the amount of time for responses. Typically, they're done counting by August. We know that's not going to be possible. And so our hope is going to be that they take as long as they need to make sure everyone gets counted.
That's why young people are so critical, because — [for] your grandparents, those family members, or those neighbors who are afraid to fill out the census — young people can be the voice of reason but also the voice of really good information. We need folks to know that the federal government can't use this information against you. They're not going to send ICE to your homes because you fill out the census. If you have a warrant, they are not going to use the census to come and find you. If you have a utility bill or phone, they already know where you are. Fill out the census so you can get the money. And we need the federal government to remind people that it's safe to fill out the census.
I know there's a lot of cynicism and people don't necessarily trust what's happening and that we have a federal government that doesn't always seem to be doing what it should. But we've been doing the census since 1790. That's the one thing we do right. And so I want everyone to participate because it's going to predict our futures, especially for people of color and for young people for the next decade.
MTV News: What can young people do to encourage people who normally mistrust the census to take it?
Abrams: One: tell them it’s safe. As I said, if you have a phone or electric bill, they already know how to find you. [The census] just means they can confirm where you live, and the confirmation is important because it means the money comes to your communities. That's why we need to know exactly where you are.
Number two: The information is confidential for 72 years. I'm 46, and I'm still too young to see a census with my name in it. And it is against the law. You would spend five years in prison, plus have a $250,000 fine for breaking the law, for every single count. So there's never been a person who has taken information from the census.
Number three: There is no citizenship question. They cannot use it to terrify immigrants or families that have immigrants and immigration issues. So it's absolutely safe. What’s not safe is not responding.
This is the most diverse census in American history and the youngest census in American history. Those are two populations that will take power away from some people who want that power. Now, this is not a partisan issue. But if you want your life to be determined by who you are and by what you need and not by people who are trying to erase you, the most dangerous thing to do is to not fill out the census.
MTV News: One of the most important issues for young people right now is the climate crisis. How does the census affect climate policy?
Abrams: Three things. One: If you want elected leaders who actually believe in climate change, the census draws the political lines for a decade. So if you thought the last 10 years of people in charge were bad, this is your only chance to change the lines because what they did was draw the lines. That’s gerrymandering, when you draw the line so politicians get to pick the voters they want. But if we fill out the census, the new lines will actually let voters pick the politicians we want. And if you want to see climate change action, you have to have leaders who believe.
Number two: We have to remember that the climate change response isn't simply what's happening with the president or the Congress, although we need both to do the right thing. It's also who's in charge of your city council. Are they passing water laws that make sense? Who's in your state legislature? Are they allowing fracking or putting real controls on where coal ash goes? All of those decisions get made at the state and the local level and redistricting from the census affects every level of government. It's not just the federal government. So it's 10 years not only in the Congress — it's 10 years for everything.
And number three: The money to pay for the response, the money to pay for putting out fires, for dealing with coal ash, over ensuring that environmental justice advocacy can happen — all of those dollars are allocated by the census. So if you live in a community that's affected by climate action or by inaction, if you live in one of those communities and you don't fill out the census when the money becomes available to respond, it won't come to you.
MTV News: If you do end up campaigning as vice president on a presidential ticket, what would your top platforms be — especially pertaining to young people?
Abrams: Well, my responsibility, if I were so privileged, is to work with the platform of the nominee. But here's the thing: We don't have a nominee who doesn't understand what's at stake. We need to invest in education from cradle to career. We need climate action now. We cannot wait. And we need justice — and that means criminal justice reform. But it also means justice for communities that are often left out. So immigration, justice, making sure that no matter who you are, if you're in America, that we treat you with respect and dignity. And that's what I'm going to talk about because I believe it. It's what I fought for here in Georgia. It's what I want to fight for, for America.
This interview has been edited for length.