Following Democrats’ stunning victories in Georgia in November and again in the January U.S. Senate runoffs, the Peach State has once again become ground zero for Republican voter suppression efforts. The latest iteration of their fight to shrink the vote is House Bill 531, which passed Monday in the Republican-controlled Georgia House of Representatives. The legislation adds new restrictions to in-person and absentee voting, including adding new ID requirements and limiting the early voting period that was so crucial to Democrats’ recent successes. The bill now heads to the GOP-controlled Georgia Senate, where an identical measure was introduced last month. If it passes there, it’ll be sent to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp. He has not endorsed the legislation but said he would support an effort “to further secure the vote.”
Nsé Ufot has been fighting efforts like this to suppress Democratic and, in particular, minority voter turnout since 2014, when she became CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization focused on registering Georgians to vote and helping them be engaged in the civic process. The group was prolific during the 2020 election, knocking on 2 million doors, making more than 7 million phone calls, and sending about 4 million texts. Their efforts paid off: The organization helped add more than half a million young people and people of color to Georgia’s voter rolls.
Ufot spoke to GEN about Republicans’ latest attempt at restricting voting in the state, which issues are the most urgent for Georgians, and why Democrats need to take action at the federal level to pass House Resolution 1, also known as the For the People Act, which would expand and strengthen voting rights in the United States. The bill passed the House on Wednesday but faces steep odds in the Senate, where it would need to clear a filibuster-proof supermajority in order to land on President Biden’s desk.
GEN: Talk to me about HB 531.
Nsé Ufot: It comes as no surprise, after Georgia flips blue for the first time since 1993, that Republicans went straight to work to restrict the freedom to vote. This is a direct, coordinated attack on our democracy and on the people of Georgia. The old-guard Republicans know that their only hope for winning elections is to place absurd restrictions on voting and silence Black voices. It is comical to me how scared they are of people exercising their democratic rights.
We are working to ensure that these restrictions will never be enacted and that every registered voter in Georgia has access to the polls in every election. Every voter, every election.
What are some of the issues that matter most to Georgians, and how are you prioritizing those?
Well, for one, restoring the full protection of the Voting Rights Act through HR 1. The attack on elections infrastructure is an attack on our multiracial democracy, and it’s an attack on Black and Brown votes. Republicans know that. This will likely be the first census where the majority of Americans under the age of 18 are going to be people of color. In the next census, they’ll be the majority of Americans under the age of 30. The country is changing, and one of the ways to mute the policy impact of those changes is to make it difficult for people to vote and participate in our democracy.
I think number two is the minimum wage. It’s $5.15 an hour in Georgia. The $15 minimum wage is super urgent for working families and for Georgia families at this moment. We also need to get rid of the tip wage. There’s a lot of hand-wringing, but criminal legal reform is very much at the top of our list. Getting rid of cash bail, that work will continue as well. In the South, the Black and green agenda is super key. Redlined communities across the country, many of them are five to 10 degrees hotter than other communities in the same city. What are the long-term environmental impacts of that on Black and Brown youth? That continues to be our work as well.
If you could offer advice to organizers in other states, what would you say?
They are the subject-matter experts. We’re already in deep community with organizers in Mississippi, Alabama, Texas, Florida, North and South Carolina, Virginia, Tennessee—all the folks who do this work already. I would encourage them to remind themselves that they are the subject-matter experts. People ignored Georgia as well. There’s a reason the back-to-back Georgia victories landed on most folks like a ton of bricks. They haven’t been paying attention. They ignored us because they were looking for a messiah. People love Stacey Abrams and love the work that she’s done but did not fully believe what she said when she came to you and told you about what opportunities were in Georgia and what the opportunities were in the Deep South.
Why do you think that is? Why do you think people have been so almost dismissive of the work that organizations like yours have been doing for a really, really long time in the South?
Because it’s led by Black and Brown women, Gen Z, and millennials. People are very comfortable dismissing Black women, very comfortable dismissing Latinas, very comfortable dismissing youth.
What sort of resources do you need, then, to continue to do the work that you’re doing? Is it people? Is it money?
It’s all of the above. I also think it’s the real wins. I argue that one of the things that contributed to the extraordinary youth turnout that we saw in January was youths seeing the impact of their vote in November. Out of 5 million people who voted, it was decided by 11,000. In some communities and some precincts, that’s one or two votes. I think that it’s investing in that leadership, investing in our innovation. You can innovate when you know that the basics are taken care of. Investing in year-round organizing.
We’re going to need our elected officials to lead from the front. One of the things I think we’re going to have to deal with is people saying, “Well, we could have gotten XYZ or ABC but for the filibuster.” It seems like there is a Democratic trifecta that will last for the next maybe 18 months. What does that mean? What wins can we get for American families that will inspire them to come back out in November of 2022? History has shown us that the president’s party during the first midterm always takes a hit in some way. If we know that is the history of our country, then we know that is the hurdle we need to overcome.
If Democrats squander this opportunity to win something meaningful and substantial for American families and the voters who put them in office, that will be considered a great and colossal failure. What that’d tell me is that perhaps there’s a new generation of Democrats who need to take the reins, who will see their successful elections as a mandate to get something done.
I feel very strongly that something like restoring the Voting Rights Act should not be controversial. If we can’t agree on protecting the right to vote, I worry about what the rest of the working families’ agenda is going to look like. What hope is there of getting anything of consequence passed?
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.