Georgia is the “center of the political universe right now,” Way to Win president and cofounder Tory Gavito tells us in a conversation about the state’s political past, present, and future. Two pivotal runoff elections — probably the most highly publicized and well-funded runoffs in modern history — will be held next week on January 5, with Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff facing off against Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively. The reason there is so much attention on them is because these elections will decide the balance of the U.S. Senate — and greatly influence the future of the country. If both Warnock and Ossoff win, Democrats would have an even split with Republicans in the Senate; since Vice President Kamala Harris would be the deciding vote in any Senate tie-breakers, this would effectively give Democrats a majority, making it easier for President Joe Biden to push through his agenda without obstruction.
The fact that this long-standing red state has become such a battleground has surprised many people, but blue energy has been percolating through Georgia long before these runoffs, and even before the 2020 election. Democrats had a couple of almost-wins thwarted in recent years: In 2017, they pinned their hopes on Ossoff to win a House seat in a suburban district of Atlanta, in a much-hyped election that ended up being the most expensive in history, but he lost the runoff to Karen Handel. Then, in 2018, Stacey Abrams came close to becoming governor, and many say she would have won if now-Gov. Brian Kemp — who, conveniently, was also overseeing the state’s elections at the time — hadn’t purged hundreds of thousands of voters from the rolls right before the election. These close races led up to 2020, when, for the first time since 1992, Georgia swung blue in the presidential election. Even after President Donald Trump demanded both hand and machine recounts, Georgia’s record 4.9 million votes helped Biden secure the presidency. Turnout has already been promisingly high in the runoffs as well: So far, over 2.1 million people have voted through early voting, which started on December 14 and will continue until December 31. And some 168,293 Georgians cast votes on December 14, the first day of in-person early voting, more than on the first day of early voting in the presidential election.
The early-voting numbers are extremely encouraging, although it’s too early to tell exactly what they’ll mean for Democrats without knowing what turnout on January 5 will look like. But while there is a great deal of grassroots energy for Democrats, particularly among communities of color and immigrants, they are up against a formidable voting bloc: 70% of white Georgians voted to elect Trump. And, there have already been accounts of voter disenfranchisement targeting people of color, namely: counties with high Black and Latinx populations are closing polling sites, Georgia voting rights groups are suing several counties for preventing early voting, and voters are being purged from the rolls.
Additionally — and in keeping with Trump’s ongoing, baseless claims of voter fraud — state officials and voting rights experts say that Republicans are likely to challenge the results of the runoffs, especially given that the margins are expected to be razor-thin. Republicans, including the campaigns of Perdue and Loeffler, have already filed three separate lawsuits looking to restrict absentee voting ahead of the election, targeting drop boxes and seeking to strengthen signature requirements.
Despite the Republicans’ spreading of disinformation, there are many strengths on the Democrats’ side, such as Georgia’s rapidly evolving demographics; a large uptick in recent years in Black, Latinx, and Asian-American voter registration; a huge growth in young and new voters; and hundreds of grassroots organizations — like Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight — that have been working tirelessly for years, laying the groundwork for what Gavito calls a “New South.”
“I think it’s going to be a tight race, but there are dynamics on our side,” Gavito said. “We just won. Also, the right is in disarray. There’s a pretty public war internally in the GOP. You’ve got Republican leaders saying that the vote is rigged and telling Republicans not to vote, which I’m sure is blowing Karl Rove’s mind. I think it’s important to note that Georgia being so important is not a fluke; this is going to be a trend that lasts for future cycles, too. In 2022 we’re going to have a governor’s race, and Brian Kemp is not worthy of that governor’s mansion. In 2024 we’re going to have another presidential cycle, and Georgia will be a priority state. Georgia’s the future.”
Ahead, we spoke with several organizers who told us what lessons they’ve learned from these unusually closely watched runoff races — and how they’re preparing for a more progressive future for Georgia.
Update: On January 5, Democrats Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff were elected to the Senate, effectively flipping it blue. It couldn't have happened without the tireless work of the women profiled below, or the actions of the young voters seen in the following video by i-D and UP+RISING: Atlanta, which centers around the young voters who helped make change possible.
Co-founder, Black Voters Matter Fund
Brown is a veteran political organizer who heads the Black Voters Matter Fund, which focuses on building Black political power. The group has been working on voter registration, education, and mobilization in 50 counties, canvassing and also holding caravan and outdoor drive-in events in rural Black communities in Georgia. Brown says her message is rooted in “love and power.” Rather than scaring people into voting, she stresses the importance of meeting people where they are: In a pandemic, it’s not just about their vote — it’s about understanding and helping with what people are going through economically and in terms of their health.
“Right now, as we speak, I’m in Valdosta, Georgia, on the Black Voters Matter bus. We have been going around the state distributing groceries to thousands of families. We’re giving away toys, we’ve got ‘Soul Santa,’ we’ve got music. Part of what we’re doing is recognizing that the holiday season can be a difficult time, so we’re providing some relief to people and letting them know that we care about them more than their vote, we care about them as people and we know it’s an economically tough time for them. We’re providing people with groceries, a lot of collard greens and other vegetables grown by Black farmers in the area. At the same time, we’re partnering with brands like Ben & Jerry’s to give out free ice cream along with voter information, and partnering with celebrities — I just did an Instagram Live with Kerry Washington, and I took over Demi Lovato’s Instagram account.”
Organizing and civic engagement director, Asian-Americans Advancing Justice in Atlanta
Around 30,000 new Asian-American voters in Georgia voted in the presidential election for the first time, representing a big jump in the vote. Lim hopes to build on that in the runoff elections, and long-term. Her organization is nonpartisan, and mainly works to provide accurate voting information to non-English-speaking households. She cites the lack of access to non-English-language information as a massive barrier to voters.
“A lot of what we do is trying to make sure that voter information is accessible to immigrant communities. Language justice is such a huge thing, and a lot of the electoral information is only available in English. We’ve been fighting to change that, but it’s an uphill battle. We do everything in like eight different languages. We have strong relationships with Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, and South Asian newspapers in the area, and we’ve been pushing out a lot of ads and information through those networks. We’ve also been using ethnically specific social platforms, so for Vietnamese people that would be Facebook, for a lot of the South Asian people we work with that’s WhatsApp, for Chinese folks it’s going to be WeChat, for Koreans it’s KakaoTalk. We fight to provide interpreters for people, but have been accused of being partisan for doing so. Voting in this state isn’t especially accessible even if you speak English, so in another language it’s almost impossible without assistance. We also offer mutual aid in the form of grocery kits, and we hand out a bajillion bottles of hand sanitizer with all of the voting information on them — super-useful.”
CEO of New Georgia Project, founded by Stacey Abrams
During the presidential election, Ufot’s organization not only registered 400,000 voters, but actually got most of them to the polls. She recently told NPR that she has been working for years on the infrastructure to create “super-voters,” people who participate in every election in which they’re eligible.
“The idea is that our democracy, our elections, our democratic infrastructure, our elections infrastructure, how policy gets made, and the politics of a region, it’s not a static condition. It’s very dynamic. More and more people are moving to Georgia every day, more and more people are turning 18 every day, becoming U.S. citizens every day. And how do people learn about their power? In our estimation that starts with registering people to vote and doing some deep, innovative voter education. We talk to voters, for example, about the fact that the closer an elected official is to you the more influence you’re able to have, we talk about things like what school boards do.”
Tania Unzueta Carrasco
Political director, Mijente
A growing population in the state, Latinx voters are 5% of Georgia’s electorate, with 62% of them voting for Biden versus 37% for Trump. Many of them are in Gwinnett and Cobb counties, which both went blue in 2016, and remained blue in the 2020 presidential election. One of Unzueta’s goals is to expand on this electorate by reaching people in Spanish, which over half of the voters Mijente has spoken to say they prefer, through ads and Spanish-speaking media like newspapers and radio stations. Like with Lim’s work, there is a language justice issue at stake: Only one out of 159 counties in the state is required to provide voting information in Spanish, per the Voting Rights Act.
“Our goal is to knock on the door of every Latino voter throughout the state, and then layer that with text messages, phone calls, and advertising. We have a fully bilingual canvass; we know a lot of voters are getting reached out to and we want to make sure it’s in their language, whether it’s Spanish or English. We’re micro-targeting, meaning we’re trying to figure out what messages work better with certain segments of the community, whether it’s young people, women, folks of Puerto Rican or Mexican descent. Usually, numbers for Latinos in runoffs are really low. Runoffs often aren’t seen as that relevant to people, people aren’t as aware of them and there are fewer resources put into runoffs in general and even less into reaching voters who don’t usually vote in them. That’s part of what’s different in this election — there’s a lot of investment from different communities to move voters. I think the fact that Biden won Georgia means there’s a lot of energy and possibility.”
Yterenickia “YT” Bell
Get Out the Vote Director, Care In Action
Care In Action is focusing on mobilizing domestic workers, many of them women of color, reaching out to over 4 million women in Georgia to make sure they have accurate information on where, when, and how to vote in the runoffs. The organization has about 250 canvassers on the ground who have knocked on over 700,000 doors for these races.
“That Georgia turned blue — that was done by organizers you don’t always see in the mainstream news, it’s untold stories. We know that domestic workers are a political force. They represent an important part of the Democratic base, mainly women of color and immigrants. We’re engaging people on all levels to make sure we’re just as victorious as we were in the general, because we want to build political power in the long run.”