How Voting Rights Activists Transformed Georgia

Grassroots groups helped turn out a record number of voters

A volunteer distributes voter care packages at a block party for Georgia Democratic Senate candidates Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Growing up as a Vietnamese immigrant in Georgia, Quynh Nguyen saw firsthand the barriers that can prevent foreign-born Americans from participating in the electoral process. “My mom and dad speak English,” she says, “but not well enough to understand that there’s a website where they can check their voter registration status.”

Nguyen has devoted her career to helping members of her community navigate the voting system. She spent the past year working as the civic engagement coordinator for Asian Americans Advancing Justice–Atlanta, a nonprofit focused on boosting voter turnout, first in the presidential election and now in Georgia’s two January 5 Senate runoff races.

“The biggest issue of voter suppression in the Asian American community is the lack of language resources,” Nguyen says. “That’s where we come in, translating these materials into different languages and posting them up on social media and leaving literature on people’s doors.”

Nguyen and her colleagues’ work has clearly paid off. During the general election in Georgia, voter turnout for Asian American and Pacific Islanders increased more than among any other demographic, helping President-elect Joe Biden become the first Democrat to win the state’s Electoral College votes since 1992.

But Nguyen’s efforts are also part of a larger story. Starting with the general election and culminating in the Senate runoff elections between Republicans David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler and Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock, voting rights activists have made Georgia a model for effective and targeted grassroots organizing. Thanks in large part to their efforts, 75,000 new voters registered for the runoffs and more than 3 million residents have already cast their votes in the two races.

“It’s extraordinary, the number of people who have voted early,” says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia. “You’d have to go back very far to find that many people voting for a statewide election for governor.” Given how early voting favored Democrats in the general election, pundits are expecting a big day for the left.

“You have people who’ve been building an organization in the state for over 10 years, and in the general election, they generated all that turnout,” says Democratic strategist Joe Trippi. “On the other side, the prime motive and motivator for voting was Donald Trump — and now he’s not on the ballot.” (Trump, however, is still contesting his general election loss in the state, pressuring Georgia’s secretary of state on a weekend phone call to “find” enough votes to overturn the results.)

While onetime Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams has rightfully received a ton of credit for creating the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voter engagement group, hers is just one of a number of organizations responsible for the state’s incredibly high voter turnout. “They’re writing a new playbook for how it’s done,” says Marjan Safinia, a documentarian whose film And She Could Be Next tracked Abrams’ failed bid for governor in 2018. “It’s very different from the more transactional way that a party will do its math and decide, ‘We need to turn out 15% more Latinx voters.’ It’s about understanding a person’s needs.”

Georgia has some of the most draconian laws around voter registration rolls in the country, purging people who either don’t vote frequently enough or don’t fill out forms affirming their eligibility to vote.

During election season, this has meant translating official literature about voting into Spanish, helping people check their voter registration status, creating TikToks and memes that provide voting information for young people, and even conducting friendly check-in calls to see how someone is faring during the pandemic.

“We know what our communities need,” says Michelle Wilson, senior program manager at Women Engaged, a Georgia-based nonprofit focused on increasing voter turnout in Black communities. “We should be telling folks that we can hold people accountable, not only at the ballot box but also outside of it. It’s ongoing advocacy around the issues that matter most to us and our community members.” About 1.2 million Black Georgians voted in the general election, according to the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus — a huge increase from 500,000 in 2016. Much of the credit for this uptick goes to groups like Women Engaged, which collectively registered some 800,000 new voters, half of whom are people of color, since 2018.

Thanks to a Republican Party that has dominated politics at the state and local levels, Georgia has for decades been at the forefront of voter suppression. It is one of 18 states to mandate that residents show a photo ID to vote, and the state requires people to pay their own postage for mail-in ballots. Georgia also has some of the most draconian laws around voter registration rolls in the country, purging people who either don’t vote frequently enough or don’t fill out forms affirming their eligibility to vote. In 2017, the state famously removed more than half a million people from the rolls in a single day. Though the GOP claims such methods are meant to snuff out voter fraud, activists say such tactics are combatting a problem that never existed in the first place, and only serve to disenfranchise low-income and minority voters — constituencies that typically vote Democratic.

For Tania Unzueta, co-founder and political director of the Latinx grassroots group Mijente, it has taken years of voter outreach to offset the decades of disenfranchisement. There are about 1 million Latino residents in Georgia, and post-election surveys found that 60% of Latinos voted for Biden in November. Unzueta estimates her team has knocked on more than 300,000 doors in advance of the runoffs, and she stresses that it’s not just the act of outreach that matters — it’s also the messaging.

Too often, campaigns have treated different demographics like monoliths. “It takes a lot more to understand the Latino community than some campaigns are willing to invest,” Unzueta says. In the Mexican community, for example, immigration is a top issue, whereas in the Puerto Rican community, health care is more of a priority. “This is where community organizers come in,” she says. “At a basic level, there are different issues that impact those two communities differently.”

The question now is whether all the years of grassroots organizing by people like Unzueta can bring even more of the traditionally disenfranchised to the polls and perhaps in the process deliver Georgia something it hasn’t seen in more than 15 years: a Democrat in the U.S. Senate.

Writer and editor. Previously at Medium, Pacific Standard, Wired

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