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Georgia Organizers Raise Bar in Battle Against Voter Suppression


Fair Fight, New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, and others worked overtime to increase access for marginalized voters in the 2020 general election.

For years, voting rights organizations — including Fair Fight and The New Georgia Project, both founded by Stacey Abrams — have fought voter suppression in Georgia.

The results of the 2020 general election show their efforts have begun to pay off. Marginalized voters turned out in droves. While White voter participation increased by 16%, Black voter participation increased by 20%, Latino voter participation increased by 72%, and Asian American voter participation nearly doubled.

The change helped make Georgia — which elected Republican presidential candidates in the past six elections — an unexpected swing state. President-elect Joe Biden won there by a margin of just over 12,000 votes.

New Demographics, Old Suppression Tactics

In the past decade, Georgia’s population has increased by nearly 1 million; 42% of the population is non-White, up slightly from 2010. Notably, more and more Black and Brown Georgians live in formerly White-dominated suburbs, making them more electorally competitive than they used to be.

Despite Georgia’s growth, the state has closed 214 polling locations since 2013. That year, the Supreme Court removed federal oversight preventing voter suppression, which Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously wrote was “like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”

The 2018 gubernatorial race highlighted voter suppression in the state. Then-secretary of state and candidate for governor Brian Kemp (R) oversaw a number of controversial decisions that made it disproportionately harder for Black and Brown people to vote, including strict name matching requirements and “use-it-or-lose-it” registration purges.

While Secretary Brad Raffensperger’s (R) tenure hasn’t been marked by the same level of scandal — in fact, he’s under fire from prominent Republicans for refusing to sow doubt in the election result — he is not popular with voting rights activists.

In response to voter fraud investigations in September, Common Cause Georgia Executive Director Aunna Dennis said in a statement that “Secretary Raffensperger has been looking for reasons to cast doubt on Georgia’s mail-in ballot system for months. He would have served us all better if he had invested that time and energy into preventing the problems that occurred in June.”

Despite a perceived lack of cooperation from authorities, Georgia’s voter turnout was remarkably high. Voting rights organizations played a major role.

What Worked

In 2020, nearly 5 million people voted in Georgia, the most in the state’s history. That success is partly the product of years of concerted effort by organizers.

The New Georgia Project alone helped register nearly 500,000 voters, according to Nsé Ufot, the organization’s executive director. In 2020, “the New Georgia Project’s 4,300 volunteers made 2.2 million phone calls, knocked on 371,000 doors and had over 98,000 conversations with voters,” she told Deadspin.

Admirable as voter registration drives may be, they’re not extraordinary in modern politics. So what really changed things in Georgia?

Judicial Pressure

Since Shelby v. Holder, voting rights organizations have taken to the courts in droves to demand that Georgia’s government end suppression tactics, with mixed success.

One case, New Georgia Project v. Raffensperger, is indicative of a pattern. The New Georgia Project called for an extension of the absentee ballot deadline, citing health concerns for chronically ill Black voters amid COVID-19. Judge Eleanor Ross ordered Georgia to accept votes after November 3rd, but Raffensperger appealed, and ultimately, the deadline stood.

Keep Track of Voting Rights Litigation

Brennan Center for Justice: Voting Rights Litigation 2020

The Brennan Center tracks litigation tied to this year’s vote by state and also by whether lawsuits were initiated pre- or post-election. You can jump directly to what’s been happening in Georgia, or start from the top.

Election Law at Ohio State: Major Pending Cases

Ohio State University’s Case Tracker lists cases involving the 2020 presidential election that were filed in five key states: Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona, Georgia, and Nevada.

Despite losses in court, there’s evidence that the sustained judicial pressure — and the media attention that comes with it — has constrained government action.

After the general election, state lawmakers called for a special session to make it harder for new Georgia residents to vote in the January run-off election for Georgia’s two US senators – a vote that will determine which party controls the Senate. Top Georgia officials refused, releasing a statement saying such a move “would only result in endless litigation.”

Youth Outreach

Many of the voting restrictions that disproportionately affect Black and Brown people — such as poll station closures or strict residency requirements — also affect young people.

New Georgia Project’s Twitch the Vote livestream and Fair Fight’s dissemination of the #MakeAPlan campaign on Twitter counteracted disinformation and directed young voters to their correct polling location.

Attempts to engage young voters are nothing new, of course. But it seems Georgia organizers were particularly successful in this election.

According to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, young voters cast 21% of the total ballots in Georgia, more than in any other state. People under 30 also made up a large portion of the volunteers who helped advocates fight for a fair election.

Faith in Electorate, Organizers

After attracting national attention for a close loss in the Georgia gubernatorial race, Stacey Abrams spent the next two years working for Fair Fight instead of running for Senate. Dan McLagan, a Georgia-based GOP strategist, told Reuters in 2018 that “Stacey [Abrams] hasn’t been terribly effective at [finding new voters] in the past. I don’t see what separates this time from last time.”

But she and other voting rights advocates continued working despite the widespread skepticism over their chance of success.

From their point of view, fighting suppression, increasing voting access, and changing the Georgia electorate was always possible. But “the South has been underinvested,” Latosha Brown of Black Voters Matter told Vox.

Without the years-long efforts of Ufot, Brown, and the thousands of team members and volunteers working alongside them, the marked increase in ballots cast by young people and people of color in 2020 may not have happened.

The Next Georgia?

The fight against voter suppression changed Georgia from a sure thing for Republicans to a swing state. Both major political parties have noticed.

Georgia Senators Kelly Loeffler (R) and David Perdue (R) have called for Secretary Raffensperger to resign. Meanwhile, Democrats were thrilled by the electoral gains in Georgia brought by increased Black, Brown, and young voter turnout.

“This wasn’t about turning Georgia or any place blue”, Phyllis Hill, director of organizing for Faith in Action, told Forge, recounting a conversation with fellow organizer Rev. Dr. Cassandra Gould. “This was about turning it Black and [B]rown.”

Now, observers are wondering which other states are ripe for targeting voter suppression and increasing voting access.

One takeaway from Georgia is that the momentum around a political candidate — Stacey Abrams — was channeled to a cause — fighting voter suppression — with remarkable success.

The grassroots movements that formed around losing candidates like Texan Beto O’Rourke (D) and Tennessean Marquita Bradshaw (D) could spend the next several years fighting a similar battle.

Keep up with Black Voters Matter, Fair Fight, and the New Georgia Project during the Senate run-offs.

Problem Addressed: Voting Rights, Voter Suppression

Written by Ciara McLaren

Published on November 24, 2020

Feature image: Jennifer Griffin on Unsplash

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