Knocking on Two Million Doors in Georgia

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Leveda Walker was at her home in Warner Robins, Ga., watching “Once Upon a Christmas” with her 8-year-old son, Moses, in early December when a motor-coach tour bus pulled up across the street. A caravan of cars followed behind the bus, the occupants honking horns, waving signs and pumping their fists, disrupting the quiet of a Sunday afternoon in Walker’s neighborhood in the small city about a hundred miles south of Atlanta. A red, black and green sign on the side of the bus read: “WE GOT POWER.” James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” began blasting from a portable sound system. When Walker stepped out into her yard to investigate, she was met by a woman in a Santa hat carrying a “VOTE TODAY” sign. “Are you registered to vote?” the woman, LaTosha Brown, wanted to know. “Is everybody in your house registered to vote?”

Brown, a founder of the grass-roots organization Black Voters Matter, had asked these two questions of hundreds of African-Americans across Georgia since the beginning of the 2020 election cycle, through the spring of civil unrest and the summer of mounting Covid-19 infections in the state. Voting, Brown had come to believe, was one of the surest ways Black people could realize collective power: not only an act of participation but also a way of appearing by proxy in the rooms where decisions were made. This was especially true in the South, where more than half of Black America lives — and where it is hard to win a statewide election as a Democrat without Black voters.

As a 6-year-old in Mobile, Ala., in 1976, Brown went with her grandmother to vote at a library. Her grandmother, born in 1910 and prevented from voting much of her life, dressed in her Sunday best and carried her “good pocketbook,” because the occasion demanded respect. “It was the way she would hold my hand,” Brown said. “I knew it was special, but I was too young to know why. When she walked in that booth and closed the curtain, it was like it was her moment. She had complete agency.” Brown’s grandfather carried an old poll-tax receipt in his wallet — a reminder that such agency had not come easily and was not guaranteed.

Brown and Cliff Albright, a friend with whom she founded Black Voters Matter in 2016, had spent years preaching the importance of local elections and engagement all over the South. “So much of what we do is about affirming Black people and pushing the concept of power, that it is something we can have and deserve,” she said. “We are rightful participants in this democracy.” Three years ago, the group mobilized Black voters for Doug Jones’s Senate race in Alabama, in which Black turnout made a crucial difference. It joined like-minded organizations such as Georgia STAND-UP, the Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda and the New Georgia Project to collectively register, since 2018, some 800,000 voters, many of them young, people of color and likely to be Democratic-leaning. The registration boost is also a result of a 2016 change to Georgia’s driver’s-license application that made voter registration automatic. Just four years ago, 22 percent of Georgia’s eligible voters were not even registered. That figure fell to 2 percent this year, according to The Washington Post.

By the time the polls closed in Georgia on Election Day, nearly five million people had voted, the most in the state’s history. Black people make up about a third of the state’s population and of its electorate, and more than a million African-Americans cast ballots. Although Black Voters Matter and the other groups are officially nonpartisan, Black voters overwhelmingly lean Democratic, and their votes were critical in Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s victory in a state that has tilted Republican in presidential elections for nearly three decades.

Neither David Perdue nor Kelly Loeffler, the Republican incumbent candidates in Georgia’s two Senate elections, cleared 50 percent of the vote in the general election — which, by Georgia law, sent the races to a runoff. On Jan. 5, Perdue will face the Democrat Jon Ossoff; Loeffler will face the Rev. Raphael Warnock, also a Democrat and the pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached. After Democratic candidates fell short in Maine and North Carolina, the party’s hopes of taking the Senate now rest entirely on Ossoff and Warnock.

That means Democratic hopes also may rest on the ability of grass-roots groups to achieve the previously unachievable. “It’s unheard-of to turn out more people in a runoff than the general election,” Felicia Davis, a veteran organizer in majority-Black Clayton County, Ga., told me. “But,” she insisted, “we are going to do it.” For all their efforts, she noted, with a hint of disappointment, total turnout in her county in November was still only about 58 percent. She added, lightly: “We are going to find them and drag them to the polls if we have to.”

When the Black Voters Matter convoy pulled into Walker’s neighborhood in Warner Robins, there were just 24 hours left before the deadline to register for the Senate runoffs. Walker, a 40-year-old certified nursing assistant and mother of three, assured Brown she was already registered. She had wanted to vote in person for the general election, but Covid-19 had already infected about 5,000 people and killed around 100 in her county, so she voted by mail instead. She said she planned to cast her ballot in the runoff as soon as early voting opened on Dec. 14. “When you come from where I come from, the vote is just about all you got to make a difference,” Walker, who grew up in Warner Robins, later told me. “Our people have had to fight for the right to vote. Seems like we are still fighting.”

The fact that Georgia’s Senate races will be decided by runoffs is a quirk of the state’s electoral system that, like many electoral quirks, originates in efforts to limit the influence of the Black vote. The Georgia state law adopting the runoff model was the brainchild of Denmark Groover Jr., a Democratic state representative and avowed segregationist who blamed “Negro bloc voting” for his 1958 election defeat. After returning to office four years later, he proposed legislation adopting the runoff model, which would limit the chances of candidates’ splitting the votes of Georgia’s white majority. One Georgia newspaper at the time described the law matter-of-factly as “a means of circumventing what is called the Negro bloc vote.”

Throughout the South, such laws hobbled the 15th Amendment, which granted Black men the right to vote in 1870. In the event that the laws and Jim Crow voter-suppression tactics — like poll taxes and literacy tests — failed, Black voters who tried to exercise their franchise were often met with brute violence. The first African-American in Georgia’s Taylor County to vote in the Democratic primary for governor, a World War II Army veteran named Maceo Snipes, did so in 1946. Shortly thereafter, Snipes was confronted outside his grandfather’s house by a group of four white men. One of them, a fellow veteran, shot Snipes, who died days later. To make sure the message was clear, a sign was nailed up at a local church. It read: “The first Negro to vote will never vote again.”

Two years later, another Black man, Isaiah Nixon, a farmer living in Montgomery County, was murdered soon after voting in a Democratic primary. In 1962, two Black churches in Terrell County were burned down after they were used for voter-registration meetings. Weeks later, Prathia Hall, a field leader with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, spoke in front of one of the churches’ charred ruins, repeating over and over, “I have a dream.” (In attendance was Martin Luther King Jr., who was inspired by the phrase.)

In 1965, Congress passed the Voting Rights Act, banning racial discrimination in voting. The protections stood largely intact for nearly a half-century until 2013, when the Supreme Court struck down a key portion of the legislation that forced nine states with a history of Black voter suppression, including Georgia, to receive federal approval before implementing changes to voting laws. The effects were immediate: Within hours of the decision, Texas pledged to enforce a voter-identification law that was blocked by the Obama administration the year before on the grounds that it discriminated against Hispanic voters, who were less likely to have a driver’s license or state identification card.

In Georgia, Brian Kemp, the secretary of state from 2010 to 2018, purged about 1.4 million recently inactive voters from the rolls. The state government has been in a tug-of-war with voter advocacy groups since the 2013 Supreme Court decision. State officials say they are maintaining clean rolls and guarding against voter fraud (though without evidence of it being a significant problem), and they point to the automatic voter registration as evidence that Georgia welcomes voters to the rolls. Advocates and organizers say Georgia’s intentions are much darker. “It’s a place where you truly see voter suppression at every level,” said Kristen Clarke, president of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which has taken dozens of actions, from prelitigation demand letters to lawsuits, against the secretary of state’s office. “What we see in many parts of Georgia is a status quo that’s bent on preserving its power.”

In 2017, Georgia’s State Legislature passed an “exact match” law requiring the names of voters on registration records to perfectly match their names on approved forms of identification. Almost immediately, Clarke’s organization and other civil rights groups sued the state, arguing the law disproportionately affects people of color; voting advocates say Black people, Latinos and Asians are more likely to have names with features that result in discrepancies. Kemp’s office placed 53,000 voter registrations on hold for exact match and other reasons, most of which belonged to Black voters (though they wound up being able to vote with additional identification).

It was amid this legal battle that Kemp ran for governor. His Democratic opponent was Stacey Abrams, the Georgia House leader at the time. Abrams had for years been interested in voting and election policy. As a freshman at Spelman College, she registered students to vote on campus. She was elected to the Georgia House of Representatives in 2006 and took over the Democratic caucus in 2011, a year after the Republican Party largely swept statewide elections. Georgia was as red as its famous clay.

At the same time, population shifts were bringing new waves of Black people, Latinos, Asians and Democratic-leaning white people to Atlanta and its thick suburban ring — once Newt Gingrich’s House district — and the traditionally conservative exurbs. The state Democratic establishment remained focused on holding onto the white rural voters who, along with Black urban voters, still allowed it to sporadically win elections, but those victories had become scarce. Abrams was convinced that a better path was to focus on this pool of new prospects. “I’m arguing: Stop trying to get back the thing that worked for 130 years,” she said. But that meant “convincing people to invest in communities that have, without exception, historically been excluded from political power and excluded from political campaigns,” she said — and “convincing people who did not believe you could win if you did not get back those who had defected to the Republican side.”

In 2013, Abrams formed the New Georgia Project, initially as an apparatus to sign up people for the Affordable Care Act, particularly people of color living in southwest Georgia. Within a year, it had morphed into a voter-registration and engagement group that focused on the new universe of Georgia voters. (Its chairman until recently was Warnock, the Senate candidate.) By September 2014, Abrams’s organization and allied groups had registered more than 100,000 voters — enough to draw the attention of Kemp, the secretary of state at the time, who issued a subpoena to the New Georgia Project and warned that a “preliminary investigation has revealed significant illegal activities” by the group. Kemp’s office eventually referred some of the group’s independent contractors to law enforcement for potential prosecution on suspicion of forging 53 voter applications. But no charges were ever filed, and the investigation ultimately found no evidence of wrongdoing by Abrams’s group itself.

Running for governor against Kemp in 2018, Abrams took her own advice, rejecting the old Southern Democrat playbook of focusing largely on white swing voters and expanding her reach beyond the traditional base to include large swaths of disengaged and first-time voters and rural Black voters. Abrams famously visited every county in the state. Nevertheless, she lost the race by about 55,000 votes of nearly four million cast. She acknowledged that Kemp received more votes but blamed voter suppression in part for her defeat, pointing to the long lines and faulty voting machines in Black neighborhoods — an “erosion of our democracy,” she called it. Shortly after her loss, she created a new organization, Fair Fight, to train “voter-protection” teams and educate young voters and voters of color, and helped to dismantle the exact-match voter law.

Fair Fight waded explicitly into political strategy. “Next year, Georgia will be the premier battleground state in the country,” Abrams wrote in a memo Fair Fight published in September 2019, called “The Abrams Playbook.” The state stood out because of its larger-than-average Black electorate. “When analyzing next year’s political landscape and electoral opportunities, any less than full investment in Georgia would amount to strategic malpractice,” she wrote.

In early December, I went to see Nse Ufot, the chief executive of the New Georgia Project, Abrams’s first organization, at her office on the southern edge of downtown Atlanta. Like other organizers, Ufot’s career was informed by a childhood experience — in her case, moving from Nigeria to Atlanta with her family and helping her mother prepare for the citizenship test. “When I took the oath of allegiance, I swore to defend this country against all enemies, foreign and domestic,” Ufot told me. “I took the rights and responsibilities of citizenship to heart. I believed that they applied to me.”

Ufot first met Abrams at a New Year’s Day brunch in 2014, after returning to Georgia following stints in the energy industry and with a teacher’s union in Canada. She was impressed by Abrams’s command of statistics but skeptical that her plan to transform the electorate would work. Then, however, “She told me that there were over a million Georgians of color, mostly Black Georgians, who were eligible to vote and completely unregistered,” Ufot said. “And that made me sit up and stop eating my eggs.”

A few days before we spoke, the Georgia secretary of state’s office had once again begun investigating the New Georgia Project for election-law violations. Brad Raffensperger, the current secretary of state, had opened a case concerning the organization and three other voting-​registration groups, which he accused of violating election law by “repeatedly and aggressively” soliciting ineligible, out-of-state and dead voters ahead of the runoff. Addressing reporters at the state’s Capitol, Raffensperger said his office had received several complaints about New Georgia’s campaign to have supporters write postcards to people in the state encouraging them to register and vote. “Here’s something that came into our house yesterday,” he said, holding up three New Georgia postcard mailers. “It’s to my son Brenton J. Raffensperger who passed away two years ago.”

Ufot insisted that her group had simply sent postcards to volunteers who had expressed interest in sending letters to eligible Georgia voters encouraging them to vote. A packet of the postcards were sent to the wrong address in New York, she said, and the mailings that went to Raffensperger’s deceased son were a mistake based on publicly available state data. “We have regular dealings with the secretary of state and their investigators and their whole office,” she said. “No one has contacted us, no one has contacted our attorneys.”

Ufot also pointed to the political context: Raffensperger, a Republican, was locked in a public spat with President Trump, who continued to push false claims of major voter fraud in Georgia and had retweeted calls for Raffensperger and Kemp to be jailed. Both Loeffler and Perdue joined in calling on Raffensperger to resign and declaring the management of the election “an embarrassment for our state.” Raffensperger maintained that Republicans had lost the election fair and square. “They got outworked,” he later said in an online forum hosted by the Bipartisan Policy Center. Raffensperger was being bullied by members of his own political party, Ufot said, “but what you can’t do is bully our civil rights organizations and voting rights organizations to re-establish your Republican bona fides.” (Kemp’s office did not respond to requests for comment.)

In the meantime, a flurry of lawsuits descended on the race ahead of the election focused broadly, again, on who gets to vote. A judge dismissed a suit by several voter-advocacy groups, including Black Voters Matter, asking Georgia to restore nearly 200,000 voters purged from the rolls because of address changes. Three suits at the federal and state levels by Republican-led groups, one of which was joined by Perdue and Loeffler, pushed to restrict absentee voting. Two have been dismissed; the third suit seeks to limit the use of ballot drop boxes to business hours. [Dec. 29, 2020: The third of the suits was settled after the print version of this article went to press.]

Ufot had set a goal of registering 10,000 voters before the runoff registration deadline of Dec. 7 and turned to the army of volunteers she had assembled, 4,500 of whom had worked during the general election, to get it done. There were toy and food drives in College Park and Columbus, literature drops and canvassing in Athens, a bike rally in Atlanta. By the deadline, they had managed about 7,000 registrations.

Historically, runoffs have favored Republican candidates. The wave that carried Biden into office, translated into real numbers, was only about 12,000 votes, an amount a runoff could easily shed. Still, Ufot has hope for high turnout. About a third of early and absentee voters whose races were known were Black, compared with 27 percent in the general election. That number is slightly higher than the number of Black people who voted early in the general election. Older voters who lean conservative made up about 37 percent of the early runoff voters, according to Georgiavotes, a voting data website. Between Oct. 5, the registration deadline for the general election, and the Dec. 5 deadline for the runoff, nearly 76,000 new voters signed up, according to The Atlanta Journal Constitution.

“We will have knocked on two million doors by the end of this year,” Ufot said. “We will have had five million phone calls with Georgia voters by the end of this year and the same number of text messages by the end of this year. We have ads on every platform imaginable. We’ve tried to buy up all of the remaining airtime, the remaining inventory on streaming radio, terrestrial radio. It is a full-on campaign to make sure that people know that there’s another election and that they show up.”

The runoff race has made Georgia the epicenter of American politics. President Trump and President-elect Biden have traveled back to the state. Vice President Pence and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, too. One data-tracking firm puts the amount of money poured into the state by late December at close to $450 million.

That spending is occurring against the backdrop of the long, litigious battle of who can cast their ballot in Georgia — and that question has become starkly partisan at a time when the state’s demographic shifts are making it increasingly central to Georgia’s political fate. A 2020 Pew Research Center analysis found that Black Georgians, many of them having moved from other states or countries, accounted for nearly half the growth of the state’s eligible-voter population between 2000 and 2019; though white voters still accounted for 58 percent of the state’s electorate, their share declined by 11 percentage points over the same period.

On the morning of Dec. 21, the eighth day of early voting, voters lined up outside the white-brick building that houses the DeKalb County elections office in Decatur, Ga. One of them was a 68-year-old Black woman named Celest Smith. Amid the crush of interest and pandemic-induced uncertainty, Smith had carefully planned out how best to cast her own ballot, researching the polling sites closest to her home in Stone Mountain, Ga., and arriving early to beat the crowds. By the time she left, the line was snaking out of the building, with voters spaced six feet apart under a large banner that read, “Georgia Votes.”

Smith considered the sign and its meaning in a state with a long history of voter suppression and voting irregularities. As the Senate races heated up — candidates crisscrossing the state, endless campaign ads — Smith had spent a good bit of time thinking about not just the candidates but the act of voting. Voting still wasn’t as easy as it should be, she thought. Frankly, she still felt Abrams would have been Georgia’s governor if the state had not closed so many polling locations in Black neighborhoods. “It was madness,” she said, her voice climbing higher. “How are you closing instead of opening places to vote?”

Voting in Georgia, where Smith has lived for 22 years, seemed to her to be the privilege of the educated and civically involved. For others, it was a tangle of confusing instructions and disinformation. “You hear these stories of long lines or of machines that don’t work or people trying to find their places to vote, and sometimes it feels like the 1960s,” she said. “I realized that the issues are systemic.”

Smith had been a regular voter since she cast her first ballot more than four decades ago. She was also a registered Republican. But she started supporting full Democratic tickets in recent years, swayed by issues like access to health care and something just as basic: the expansion and protection of the franchise. “Voting is one of our most basic rights,” she said.

She believed Republicans were actively working to make voting harder in Georgia under the guise of fighting voter fraud. That was part of why she cast her ballot for Warnock and Ossoff, who both support the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would essentially restore the requirement that some states get any changes to their voting procedures cleared by the U.S. Justice Department. “For me,” she said, “the right to vote, the right to health care and the need to get America back on track is on this ballot.”

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