Political watchers across the country have had Georgia on their minds lately—and for good reason. After a historic, whirlwind election cycle in which the reliably Republican state not only made President Joe Biden the first Democrat to carry Georgia since 1992, but also delivered Democratic control in the U.S. Senate, the Republican-controlled state legislature has enacted draconian new voter restrictions, justifying them with baseless allegations of voter fraud.
Among other elements, the new law imposes new voter ID requirements, allows state leaders to take over local elections, places limits on drop boxes, and makes it illegal to provide food and drink to voters waiting in long lines.
For progressive activists and organizers in the state, the partisan backlash isn’t surprising. And their work continues with even greater urgency than before. The New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter, and Rise Inc. have filed a federal lawsuit to stop the bill, which they write places “unjustifiable burdens” on the state’s minority, young, poor, and disabled citizens. Other groups such as the Georgia NAACP have filed additional lawsuits.
“We had grand plans for 2021 after making history in January,” says Cliff Albright, co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund. “But we also knew there was going to be a regressive legislative backlash.” At least 250 new restrictive voting laws have been proposed in 42 other states, a backlash he says the country hasn’t seen since Post-Reconstruction.
From the outside looking in, Georgia’s recent historic wins may read like a mystery. How did a historically deep-red state shift blue in the first place? And what can progressives across the South learn from the on-the-grounds efforts here?
“It requires really understanding what happened,” says Carol Anderson, Emory University professor and author of One Person, No Vote: How Voter Suppression Is Destroying Our Democracy. “It took time, it took resources, and it took strategy. If folks are looking for a magical Stacey Abrams to be their own Glinda the Good Witch and sprinkle pixie dust on them, that’s not going to happen.”
Stacey Abrams, founder of the instrumental group Fair Fight Action, has been rightfully declared among the country’s foremost defenders of voting rights. But it’s important to remember that her efforts, as well as the efforts of other multiethnic organizers in the state, precede the 2020 election cycle.
“What made 2020 different,” says Anderson, “is that we as a nation had a clear understanding that democracy was hanging by a thread.” That urgency, coupled with the star power of Abrams and her work, helped bring in record cash to the state.
According to reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, Georgia’s new senators, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock raised totals of $162.6 million and $147.1 million, respectively, with donations skyrocketing after Election Day as it became clear that Democrats could take control of the Senate by flipping both seats, which were headed into a runoff election in January. Outside spending for both the Democratic and Republican races totaled another $432.6 million, and the total spending across both races added up to more than $937 million. While campaigns received cash from party committees, PACs, and other large donors, all four candidates received the vast majority of their contributions from individuals, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported.
The Black Voters Matter Fund’s Albright says that when organizers in states such as Florida and Texas ask about replicating Georgia’s efforts, he tells them just how essential those financial investments were for Georgia’s results.
“It’s one thing to have the framework and the infrastructure in place, but it’s another to actually have what you need to be able to get the job done,” Albright says.
It takes money to place ads, canvass voters, print out fliers, organize luncheons, and set up rides to the polls. It is also expensive to create apps, ensure activists are equipped with the right technologies, and to provide voters with food and drink incentives for registering to vote or for casting their ballots during their full-day work shift.
“When it was made clear that all eyes were going to be on Georgia, that the balance of power in the Senate was going to depend on Georgia, a lot of resources came into the state to fight that battle,” Albright says.
Without those resources, he adds, “our work would have still been great work. But we may be telling a different story today.”
Those resources primarily take the form of cash, but they also involve connections to other organizers, media outreach, or simply technological assistance. Tapping into resources and then meaningfully distributing them to the counties, cities, and states where the need to mobilize voters is greatest is at the core of how the Black Voters Matter Fund operates. Instead of creating chapters across the nation, Albright and his colleagues partner with both formal and informal local state groups—from churches and NAACP chapters to Greek letter organizations and neighborhood associations.
“Sometimes it’s just about connecting with grandma around the corner,” he says. “She’ll know how to get 50 people to show up at the church.”
Financial resources alone are meaningless, he adds, if you can’t engage with and excite Black voters.
“It doesn’t matter what tools you have, it really doesn’t even matter how many resources you have,” Albright says. “If you don’t fundamentally believe in the people and aren’t willing to fully commit to putting the resources in their hands, then you’re not going to get the result that you want to get.”
Black voters were instrumental in landing Georgia Democrats their historic victory, reaching record levels during the Georgia runoffs. According to NBC exit polling, roughly 93% of Black voters supported the races of Democratic senators Ossoff and Warnock.
Souls to the Polls
To mobilize Black voters, Albright and other organizers—including Nsé Ufot, CEO of the Abrams-founded New Georgia Project—knew their work required tapping into Black culture through food, music, and perhaps most importantly, the church.
“There is no institution more enduring and powerful in Black America than the Black church,” Ufot says. “Moral leaders, faith leaders, and lay leaders within the church are going to be here meeting the needs of their communities during elections and beyond.”
Historically, churches have indeed provided Black congregants with logistical voter registration information as well as transportation to the polls, but they’ve also served as refuges from the prejudice Black voters often face at the ballot box. Voting as a collective after Sunday services, an event colloquially known as “souls to the polls,” is an especially powerful and effective tradition in engaging congregants to vote without fear.
During the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, faith groups and leaders also played an essential role in loudly decrying discriminatory barriers for Black voters.
In 1957, churches and civil rights organizations gathered in Washington, D.C., for what became a rallying cry for Black voting rights at a time when poll taxes, literacy tests and voter intimidation kept congregants from casting their ballots.
Speaking at the Lincoln Memorial during the demonstration, Martin Luther King Jr. addressed the urgency of voting rights:
“Give us the ballot and we shall no longer have to worry the federal government about our basic rights. Give us the ballot and we will no longer plead to the federal government for passage of an anti-lynching law; and we will by the power of our vote write the law on the statute books of the South and bring to an end the dastardly acts of the hooded perpetrators of violence.”
There are still potential conflicts between faith and progressive politics and activism among Black voters, and Albright admits the matchup isn’t perfect. But instead of being dismissive when coming across such conflicts, especially in predominantly White and rural areas where some Black churches are already isolated, Albright encourages organizers to offer information about registration and also instill courage by letting parishioners in often-overlooked or secluded regions know that an entire movement is supporting them.
If churches didn’t play a critical role in mobilizing Black voters, Albright, Ufot, and Anderson all say, Georgia Republicans wouldn’t be enacting new restrictions targeting Sunday voting.
Building a Bigger Coalition
In addition to attracting resources and connecting authentically with Black voters, Ufot believes a progressive future—particularly in states with diverse populations such as Georgia—requires a vision that is multiracial, multi-ethnic and multilingual.
“The idea that Georgia or the South is just Black and White is just not true,” says Ufot.
In fact, according to the NGP, of the 1.5 million new Georgians to call the state home since 2005, 80% are people of color from various backgrounds. During the 2020 election cycle alone, Ufot and fellow organizers registered more than a half-million Black, Asian, and Hispanic voters.
Georgia’s Asian American population, which has doubled in size in the past two decades, is an especially powerful force. According to survey data from the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders Fund, 41% of Asian Americans living in the hotly contested, now-flipped 7th Congressional District, home to northeastern Atlanta and eight smaller cities in Gwinnett and Forsyth counties, reported voting for the first time.
They See Blue, a national organization mobilizing Democratic South Asian voters from countries including India, Pakistan, and Nepal, launched its Georgia chapter in 2019 ahead of the election year.
Kyle Patel, who serves as the They See Blue-Georgia Legislative Affairs Chair, says he and fellow volunteers, primarily politically engaged youth like himself, often look to prominent local organizations such as the New Georgia Project, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Fair Fight Action, and Black Voters Matter for guidance. In addition to amplifying the work of longtime grassroots organizers in the state, Patel strives to replicate efforts in ways the diverse South Asian community may better understand and engage with the material.
That includes communicating through WhatsApp and phone banking in six or seven languages, or encouraging South Asian organizers to sign postcards with their native-language names instead of leaving salutations blank or signing with an adopted Western name. Most prominently, during the runoffs, the group held rallies and sign-waving events for Ossoff and Warnock in heavily South Asian spaces, including a canvassing event in the strip mall parking lot of Patel Brothers, a popular Indian grocery store in Suwanee.
“We know that Black liberation is very much tied to the liberation of other marginalized groups,” says Ufot, noting that the New Georgia Project also makes it a point to center their organizing around that vision; as a general rule, all literature published is available in English, Spanish, Mandarin, and Korean to start.
For activists in neighboring states looking to Georgia, Ufot has one major piece of advice: “Remember that everyone needs a political home.”
“I subscribe to the gospel choir theory of organizing,” she adds. “The idea is that the choir can hold powerful notes for a really long time, because everyone is doing their part. As Dr. King says, the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice. The work that we do as activists and organizers is what helps bend the arc, but it’s a long, long arc. This is a marathon. So find the people who share your values and who want to bring about the change that you see. That’s how we win.”
And that’s all the more reason to keep fighting when White politicians are pushing back against voter enfranchisement.
“This is a blitz attack on our democracy,” Ufot says. “And it’s really easy to be cynical and dismayed when we lean in to the losses. But what will it take for us to fight this and win? That’s my focus and that’s my obsession.”
Fiza Pirani is an independent journalist, writer and editor covering immigration, immigrant experiences, mental health, and mental illness. She focus on immigrant communities and the American South. She is the founder of the award-winning immigrant mental health newsletter Foreign Bodies, born in 2018 from a reporting fellowship with The Carter Center. Her recent freelance work has appeared in The Guardian, Colorlines, Electric Literature, Teen Vogue, Zora Magazine, Elemental, Gizmodo and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is a member of Asian American Journalists Association. Fiza is based in Atlanta, Georgia, and speaks English, Hindi, and Spanish (conversational). She can be reached at www.fizapirani.net/contact.