Tue, October 26, 2021

in-focus

Georgia groups push for Black voter turnout


ATLANTA - In the final days before twin runoff elections Tuesday that will determine the trajectory of Congress for the next two years, more than a dozen civic engagement groups scattered across the state are making an aggressive push to mobilize Black voters, whose strong turnout in November helped Joe Biden win the state in the presidential race.

They are up against historical winds, as Georgia runoffs typically draw out a whiter pool of voters than regularly scheduled elections and have traditionally favored Republicans. Though most of the groups are officially nonpartisan, Black voters overwhelmingly support Democrats.

But the groups - ranging from well-known outfits such as Black Voters Matter to more informal clubs - are nevertheless trying to match or even improve upon Black voter turnout in a set of contests that will determine which party controls the Senate. Their sprint comes after years of grass-roots organizing on voting in Black communities, and is buoyed by an infusion of cash from Democratic donors inside and outside of Georgia.

Nsé Ufot, the chief executive of the New Georgia Project, one of the leading statewide groups focused on voter registration and engagement, estimates that by Saturday, her canvassers will have knocked on a million doors and sent 3 million text messages.

"There was so much hand-wringing in the immediate days after the November general election," Ufot said. "People were saying, 'Well, you know Republicans have a structural advantage. You know turnout is historically lower and only a fraction of what you see in the general. You know that turnout in runoff elections is whiter and older than the general election.' Georgians have smashed through all of that."

Democrats appear to be in a slightly better position than they were at this point before the November election, thanks to Black voters making up a larger portion of early runoff votes. But the early vote is just a snapshot, and the trends may not hold up after all votes are counted, especially in an unprecedented election with nationwide interest and investment.

Republicans have acknowledged that both contests are close and that they are working harder than in past runoffs to re-elect Sen. David Perdue and get Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to replace a retiring senator, elected to a full term.

If Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock win, their party would control the upper chamber with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote once she is inaugurated. A pair of wins in Georgia would allow President-elect Joe Biden to enact a more aggressive agenda in his first two years. But if even one of the Republicans wins, the GOP would have a bulwark to Democratic control.

To court Black voters, who make up a third of Georgia's electorate and are one of the Democratic Party's most loyal voting groups, more than a dozen groups are going beyond convention. They're hosting pop-up concerts and asking DJs at hip-hop clubs to encourage clubgoers to talk to "voting ambassadors" in VIP booths. Organizers are popping into Zoom birthday and graduation parties to talk about the importance of the election. And they have targeted immigrant communities and public housing projects alike - people characterized as low-propensity voters who may have been overlooked in previous elections.

Some groups are combining political activity with charity, tucking vote-by-mail and early-voting instructions - even a number to call for rides to the polls - into bags of groceries being given away at Thanksgiving and Christmas. Former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams crashed an online Verzuz battle between rappers Jeezy and Gucci Mane. "For right now, we can at least make sure that everyone shows up to vote so we have two senators to make sure we have covid response and we've got stimulus money coming back to Georgia," she told the virtual audience.

On Wednesday afternoon, Kay Street sat on the roof of her red Audi, legs dangling through the sunroof, mouthing lyrics as one of her favorite artists, Mulatto, performed at a free drive-in concert in the shadow of Atlanta's football stadium.

But between the rapper's songs was a message aimed at Street and the more than 100 young Black people who bopped and swayed to the music: Vote.

The concert featuring a half dozen Atlanta artists was organized by the Black Male Voter Project. After the music ended, some attendees marched to the nearby stadium to cast ballots on the final day of early voting.

"I'm not somebody that wouldn't vote, but really, I'm here for the music," said Street, 20, who said she had cast an early ballot in the pair of Georgia runoffs before coming to the concert. "Most of the stuff I pay attention to, I see on social media. The rest just washes past me."

Other groups have seen donations stream in and volunteers sign up for canvassing and phone banking shifts to help with the monumental persuasion effort.

That has meant a concerted - and often repeated - effort to inform and activate voters preoccupied with the coronavirus pandemic, an uneven economic recovery and even the bustle of the holidays. Even though millions have already cast ballots, organizers are going after people with little political inclination.

Their focus is on mobilizing Black voters in the Atlanta metro area, as well as pockets around the state with sizable Black populations, including Augusta, Savannah, Macon, Albany and Columbus.

"Where regular campaigns talk to voters two to five times a cycle, we try to talk to (Black men) at least 12 or 13 times," said W. Mondale Robinson, the founder of the Black Male Voter Project. "When I talk to them, I'm not having a traditional political conversation. I'm having a conversation about giving them a tool to address some of the things plaguing them, and that tool is their vote. It's not like I'm forcing politics on them in a political space. I'm talking to them in their space about politics, so it's more comfortable, it's more authentic to their life."

Repeated contacts come at a cost - an investment of money and time that cash-strapped groups have to usually carefully ration. But some groups have found that, at least in the runoff, there is enough cash for deeper engagement with voters.

Abrams said that historically, Republicans have outspent Democrats in Georgia, but "investment has dramatically shifted in this race. We have seen support going to our candidates at unprecedented amounts."

A group Abrams founded, Fair Fight Action, raised $22 million between Nov. 24 and Dec. 16, and gave most of the money away to grass-roots groups working to turn out voters of color, a spokesman said.

Helen Butler, the executive director of the nonpartisan Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, which also has offices around the state, said her group has been getting "a tremendous amount of resources, both financial and people wanting to give their time."

"Everybody understands the country is at stake, not just Georgia. We're getting a lot of support we don't ordinarily get ... We've been doing this for 20 years. We've always had to do stuff with a lot of volunteers. This time we're able to give people little stipends."

The coalition's beefed up activity is supplementing a larger effort that has already turned out more than 2.5 million early voters, according to the secretary of state's office, with both sides pushing to get more voters to the polls Tuesday with social media ads, texts, phone calls, outdoor rallies and covid-safe car rallies.

Biden and President Donald Trump will appear within hours of each other Monday, the eve of the election. Vice President Mike Pence has stumped for Loeffler and Perdue half a dozen times during the runoff, and Harris will make her second Georgia runoff appearance in Savannah on Sunday. With the spending by candidates, interest groups and super PACs, a total of a half-billion dollars is anticipated to flow into the state.

Even conventional efforts to activate Black and other minority voters have seen an increase.

Bethelehem Kebede, who was laid off from her job as a waitress at a Washington, D.C., restaurant, has been camped out in Georgia since Nov. 28 as part of a canvassing operation by the labor union UNITE HERE. The union is focused on Georgia's growing population of African immigrants, about 40,000 of whom are registered voters. Kebede, a naturalized citizen who is originally from Ethiopia, goes door to door every day from about 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. appealing to other African immigrants to vote for Ossoff and Warnock.

She misses her husband and three children back in Alexandria, Va., but she says it's important for her to help the Democrats win the runoffs.

"Some people don't know about this election; they think they've already voted," she said of her encounters. "We tell them this a different kind of election, a U.S. Senate election. They're surprised, like 'Wow! This is the first time people have come knocking on our door to tell us to vote.' "

Felicia Davis, convener of the Clayton County Black Women's Roundtable, also a nonpartisan group, said the additional support has enabled her to hire more canvassers and give them a bigger stipend; she said she had 30 canvassers doing four hours a week at $15 per hour in the general; now she has 50 canvassers at 30 hours per week and $20 per hour. And although she has more people and money, she wishes she had more time.

Last week, she wondered: "What else can I do to get these people out to vote? I've been knocking on doors, I've been to the barbershops, what else can I do?"

Black voters made up 70 percent of the county's 194,000 voters during the general election, when turnout was less than 60 percent. She has been trying to improve on those figures for the runoff.

"If I meet or exceed the general, even though Clayton came out under 60 percent, but still if I meet or exceed the general that's a win.

"The challenge," Davis added, "is we don't have enough time. That's my anxiety. If I had the same amount of time I'd feel great, but ... I have two major holidays and less time."

On a recent Saturday morning in Montezuma, a small city 130 miles south of Atlanta, Macon County Commissioner Bob Melvin met a dozen or so volunteers in the parking lot of a Piggly Wiggly grocery store. The group doesn't have outside funding or a connection to other groups but felt motivated to canvass their neighbors on their own.

After a brief huddle, and a conversation about talking points and literature, they went out to several nearby public housing complexes.

"We're going out and pushing the message that even though we've elected a Democratic president, he still needs the help of a Democratic Senate to get things done," Melvin said. "And that's the message I'm taking out there today."

Like most Georgians, the people they encounter have been inundated with TV and radio commercials, as well as mailings and social media ads. But the dozen or so volunteers said they feel they are best positioned to persuade their neighbors.

"Once you sit them down and say, this is going to affect you in the long term, this will affect your child at school or it may affect your health care, because you know we don't have a hospital here or a clinic or anything here, then it begins to hit home," said Nicole Hall, a volunteer from Macon County who knocked on doors. "Until we educate everybody, and they understand the importance of the power of the vote, then all they're seeing is a bunch of names on TV. But what does this person represent? What is this person going to do for me?"

Published : January 02, 2021

By : The Washington Post, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Vanessa Williams