Originally published in The Washington Post
ATLANTA — For Deborah Scott, executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, it's as if Election Day never ended.
The get-out-the-vote efforts of civic engagement groups like hers, which helped Joe Biden become the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state in nearly three decades, have been ongoing since Nov. 3. The group is still knocking on doors, calling voters and signing up new registrants, with a big push involving 100 volunteers planned for this weekend. Another group that works to mobilize voters of color set up tables at a recent high school graduation to register newly eligible young voters. A third group is reaching voters at transit stations.
The efforts are a continuation of the groups’ relentless push to register, engage and turn out voters ahead of a pair of high-stakes Senate runoffs on Jan. 5, which will determine which party controls the Senate and potentially whether a President Biden will be able to enact an ambitious agenda or be blocked by a restive upper chamber.
Scott is executive director of Georgia Stand-Up, which is focusing on registering more voters ahead of the state’s Senate runoffs in January. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
“At this point, it’s a turnout game,” said Scott, whose group focuses on Atlanta. As excited and proud Black voters are about their role in the outcome of the general election, Scott said the challenge is to remind them “we’re not done yet. We have to get them to go back. We have to show them why this race is so important because a lot of people will not be as engaged.”
Republicans have historically outperformed Democrats in Georgia’s runoff elections, which is one reason some political strategists suggest the Democratic Party and these groups have a steep climb ahead of the runoffs, which pit challenger Jon Ossoff (D) against incumbent Sen. David Perdue (R) and the Rev. Raphael Warnock (D) against Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R). The runoffs were triggered when none of the candidates got more than 50 percent of the vote in the Nov. 3 election.
But President Trump’s aggressive attempts at overturning the results of the presidential race could prompt a backlash from Democratic voters, particularly Black voters, whose support was critical to Biden’s success in the election. Many view Trump’s false accusations of voter fraud — targeting heavily Black cities including Philadelphia, Atlanta and Detroit — as racist attempts to invalidate African American votes.
“I’ve definitely met people in rural parts of the state who say, ‘Oh they’re trying to take away our vote? We’re not going to have that,’ ” said Wanda Mosley, senior coordinator for Black Voters Matter in Georgia. “It absolutely motivates Black voters across the state when they see our voting rights under attack.”
“It absolutely motivates Black voters across the state when they see our voting rights under attack,” Mosley says about her effort to recruit voters. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
She said voters are paying close attention to what is unfolding in Michigan, where Republican election officials are seeking to block certification of votes in Wayne County, home to majority-Black Detroit. Georgia has also been the site of fierce fights over allegations of voter suppression of people of color.
“We brace ourselves,” Mosley said. “We’re looking and watching and seeing what they’re doing in Michigan, but we’re also keeping an eye on what’s happening in Georgia. We’re watching now so that were ready on January 5th and 6th and 7th.”
Lauren Groh-Wargo, chief executive of Fair Fight, predicted this runoff would be different from past cycles anyway, after Democrats pulled off a victory for President-elect Biden.
“We absolutely are going to be competitive. We have the wind in our sails on the Democratic side and two great candidates,” she said. “The big question is what is turnout going to be, and we feel like turnout is going to be relatively high.”
Since 2000, Georgia’s White population has declined from 65 percent to 52 percent, according to the most recent census estimates.
Democrats have slowly improved their statewide electoral game during the past several years, thanks to rapid demographic changes and grass-roots organizing. One of the best-known architects of the coalition of liberal voters is Stacey Abrams, whose 2018 campaign for governor was the best statewide performance for a Democrat in Georgia until Biden’s upset. Abrams, a former Democratic leader of the state House, had worked for years to register more people of color and young voters. Her campaign, which she lost by 1.4 percentage points, inspired her followers and independent groups to continue to register voters and educate them about the importance of participating in the political process.
Charles Bullock, a veteran political scientist at the University of Georgia, said demographic changes and the stakes both parties have in the outcome of the runoff could make for a slightly better playing field for Democrats this year.
That the two Georgia seats could determine the balance of power in the Senate has drawn more attention to the runoff than in past election cycles, Bullock said.
Warnock, the African American pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where slain civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. preached, could bring out more Black voters, whose numbers have tended to decline more steeply than White voters in runoff contests. Bullock said Democrats could be more competitive “if Reverend Warnock can help punch up Black participation,” Bullock said.
The Rev. Raphael Warnock, who is running for U.S. Senate, and Stacey Abrams speak to voters in Atlanta on Election Day. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Black voters are the Democratic Party’s largest and most loyal supporters in Georgia and turning them out, along with Latinos, Asian Americans, LGBTQ individuals and young people, will be the focus of grass-roots organizations.
Although many of those organizations are nonpartisan, their focus on voters more likely to support Democratic candidates — as they did overwhelmingly for Biden in the general election — will help the party in the upcoming runoff.
The groups plan to apply lessons they learned in the 2020 general election to try to punch up turnout among traditionally Democratic groups.
For instance, Felicia Davis, convener of the Clayton County Black Women’s Roundtable, estimates that turnout there was about 10 percent lower than usual in the presidential election. The pandemic severely curbed the amount of door-to-door canvassing that she and other grass-roots activists usually do, she said, and she thinks they will have to increase their activity for the runoff.
“We have to put on face masks and shields because we have to canvass. People do have to have that personal touch,” Davis said, adding that infrequent voters especially need to be personally persuaded.
Democrats are also putting more focus on persuading the state’s Latinos, who currently account for 5 percent of eligible voters, to show up for the runoffs.
“With the strength of the Latino electorate being at 250,000 strong, that is a sizable enough chunk in a tight, competitive race to make a difference,” said Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of Galeo, a nonprofit civic engagement organization that works in Georgia’s Latino communities.
Latino voters in Georgia, who favored Biden by 25 points in exit polls, have historically turned out at higher rates than in other states.
Whit Ayres, a Republican strategist who has worked on many campaigns in Georgia, expressed skepticism that Democrats could improve their performance over the general election, which drew historic turnout because of the strong feelings about Trump.
“If they didn’t participate in one of the most intense elections in our lifetime, it strikes me as a tall order to get someone who didn’t care enough to vote in this election to come back to vote in a runoff in January,” Ayres said.
Republicans will be hyper-focused on convincing the voters that cast ballots for Loeffler and Perdue the first time around to return to the polls, Ayres said. But some of those voters may be turned off by the two Republican senators’ support for allegations of fraud in the 2020 election in Georgia, he added.
The campaigns expect both races to be tight, which means turnout — and perhaps first-time voters — will be key.
New Georgia Project, which was founded by Abrams in 2013, has focused on registering young voters of color across the state. Nse Ufot, the organization’s chief executive, said her staff has identified 100,000 people they’ll try to register before the Dec. 7 deadline and expects to sign up as many as 20,000 of them.
That group, mostly 18- to 34-year-olds, is spread around the state and concentrated in places with historically low participation rates and where the gap between registered White voters and registered voters of color is the largest.
Last week, in Atlanta, New Georgia Project set up tables outside a joint graduation for city high schools whose spring ceremonies were canceled. As the graduates streamed out of a football stadium on the city’s south side, staffers handed out voting material.
“It was beautiful, we were rushed by kids in caps and gowns in different colors from different schools,” Ufot said. “We told them their community welcomes them to adulthood — and here’s a voter registration form.”
But the group has also ramped up online organizing efforts. On Election Day, they convened “Twitch the Vote,” an all-day event live-streamed on the gamer-focused platform that drew half a million visitors and encouraged them to head to the polls. New Georgia Project estimates there are up to 30,000 17-year-olds who will turn 18 between Election Day and the Jan. 5 runoffs — another pool of voters the group will target.
Ahead of the runoffs, Ufot and her team will focus on the state’s rural areas, which the state’s political establishment often writes off as homogenous and solidly Republican.
“When we would talk about rural voters, people would have a confused look on their face,” Ufot said. “We realized when people hear rural voters, they think of White conservatives and that is just not the case in Georgia.”
On the eve of the election, Mosley and her group were crisscrossing the state in their self-appointed “Blackest bus in America.” The nonpartisan group made several stops in the southwestern corner of the state, reminding residents to turn out the next day — but also registering new voters, even though the deadline to be eligible for the Nov. 3 contest had long passed.
“Voter registration is a 365-day-a-year proposition for us,” Mosley said.
They plan to keep focusing on places like Georgia’s rural southwest — cities like Blakely, for example, one of the last Mosley visited before the general election. And while questions swirl in Washington and elsewhere about the presidential election, most voters are focused on issues closer to home.
In Blakely — the seat of Early County, which was devastated by a coronavirus outbreak in April — there are few issues more important to voters than health care, Mosley said.
“Georgia is one of only 12 states that does not have Obamacare, so we have struggled with access to health care prior to covid,” Mosley said. “Now not having health care, coupled with hospital closings, it is glaring and it is top of mind for a lot folks, especially Black folks.”
Mosley said get-out-the-vote efforts in rural areas are vital not just for the Senate contest, but also for the lesser-known race for public service commission, which regulates the state’s utilities and has a direct, immediate impact on residents’ lives.
“Their lives are on the ballot in many ways,” Mosley said.