For Democrats, the most heartbreaking moment in an otherwise upbeat 2018 election took place in the state of Georgia, where an often-inspiring bid by lawmaker Stacey Abrams to become the first Black woman governor of a state synonymous with voter suppression, from Reconstruction through its voter purges of the 2010s, fell just short.
So in 2020, the Black and brown women of the Peach State went to work. That included an Election Day “war room” where they dispatched some of the weapons that put their crusade over the top — thousands of hot pizzas and bottles of ice cold water, and video-gaming trucks, as well as spoken-word artists, stilt walkers, drag queens, anything that would keep Georgians amused and refreshed to stay on line as they waited to vote.
And the entertainment was just part of what will surely be remembered as one of the most successful get-out-the-vote campaigns in American history. “We anticipated the [BS],” Nse Ufot, the Abrams ally who took over her New Georgia Project which has registered tens of thousands of new voters across Georgia since 2014, told me. That means when they learned at 5 a.m. on Election Day that more than 100 polling places had been abruptly moved in the prior 48 hours, Ufot’s team immediately sent an army of volunteers wearing sandwich boards to the old locations, to convey the new information to any confused voters.
And every little bit helped in what was arguably the most stunning upset of 2020′s fraught presidential election, with Joe Biden riding that increased voter turnout to the brink of a narrow victory that would make him the first Democratic White House hopeful to carry the (former?) red state of Georgia since 1992. The efforts of activists such as Abrams, Ufot and dozens like them are also a reason the state’s two Democratic U.S. Senate candidates performed well enough to force a January runoff, which will give the party a chance — albeit an uphill one — to capture control of Congress to enact Biden’s agenda.
But in reality, what happened this fall in the home state of the late Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. , John Lewis and other icons of America’s never-ending battle for civil rights should be seen as less about Biden, and more about the cherished ideal that every vote counts. In 2016, some 22% of eligible Georgians weren’t even registered to vote, but non-stop organizing has reduced that to the once-unthinkably low 2%. The result was that 67% of those voters cast ballots this fall, beating the prior record from 2008 — when Barack Obama electrified Black voters.
In one sense, Georgia was the frothy top of a national wave, in which voter enthusiasm swamped the seawall of Republican-enacted repressive laws and practices meant to keep unfettered democracy at bay. More than 150 million Americans voted in 2020 — millions of ballots are still being counted, in fact — which is an all-time record.
And yet despite that, some communities could do even better. One of them, ironically, is right here in the city of Philadelphia, which last week wildly celebrated providing the votes that finally put Biden over the top. It could have done more, though. Voter turnout in America’s founding city was relatively even with 2016, with a massive vote in the suburbs needed to flip Pennsylvania from Trump, who won it in 2016, to Biden. So what do the voting activists of Georgia — most of them not only Black or brown but women — know that the rest of us need to learn?
“Sunlight is the best disinfectant, and so turning on the lights makes the roaches scramble,” Ufot told me in a phone interview. “We’re getting better at telling the story — at letting people know what really happens in Georgia.” In other words, civic education needs to be constant — both the high stakes of voting (or not voting) as well as making a plan to cast a ballot in the face of obstacles, especially those created intentionally by Georgia’s Republican-led government — and it needs to be in language everyday folks understand.
And it doesn’t hurt to make voting actually fun.
That’s why a highlight of the Election Day effort by Ufot’s New Georgia Coalition was introducing a new video game on the app Twitch — as popular with teen and 20-something Gen-Z potential voters as it remains a mystery to clueless Boomers like me — and livestreaming on the site for 12 hours, with celebrities like Beyonce’s mother Tina Knowles-Lawson showing up to remind Georgians how important it was to vote in 2020.
As the dust from one of the most contentious presidential elections in modern U.S. history (very slowly) settles, Georgia’s breakout performance has already further elevated the rising stature of Abrams — including talk that she’d make a great chair of the national Democratic Party — and deservedly so. After her crushing defeat two years ago, she chose to shun the state’s two Senate elections to throw herself into voter registration, convinced that no Democrat — not just her, but anyone — could win Georgia without a new kind of pushback against suppression.
Abrams created and led a new group called Fair Fight that, harkening back to the civil rights era of the 1960s, put voting rights, as well as civic participation, back on the front burner. “I think where the Democratic Party has gotten into trouble is that we’ve created a binary, where it’s either the normative voter we remember fondly from 1960”—referring to blue-collar whites—"or it’s the hodgepodge," she told The New Yorker’s Jelani Cobb. “The reality is that we are capable as a society of having multiple thoughts at the same time.”
And so it’s important to note that it took not just Abrams but a village of activists, using different approaches to connect with different folks, to create near-universal registration and high voter turnout in Georgia. And thus, along with Ufot, credit goes to the likes of Georgia Stand Up’s Deborah Scott, Helen Butler of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, LaTosha Brown of Black Voters Matter, Amber Bell of the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, and many, many more. They worked tirelessly to sign up voters at coronavirus relief events or this summer’s George Floyd protests, and to connect the everyday concerns of working people, such as low minimum wages, with the act of voting.
Ufot told me her own experiences as an immigrant, born in Nigeria before moving to Atlanta before becoming a naturalized U.S. citizen, helped her see that not enough young people are receiving the civic education that would help them connect their ability to vote to the power to better their own lives. “As an immigrant, I know that things like taxes and how government and policies work are really opaque,” she added, but she sees her mission as changing that.
What’s remarkable about what Ufot and her compatriots accomplished is that it happened in Georgia, a state whose history of suppressing votes is deeply tangled with traditions of white supremacy that date all the way back to the poll taxes, literacy tests and “white primary” for the Democratic nomination that formed the backbone of Jim Crow at the end of the 19th century. Its more modern tentacles have included massive purges of voting rolls that fell heavily and unfairly on Black voters as well as an “exact match” rule for voting signatures that disqualifies far too many, and closures of polling places that made Georgia 49th of the 50 states for voting lines.
In spending the last two years registering voters and then rousting them to the polls — even though some had to wait on line for hours (and even 12 hours, according to some reports) — the Georgia activists took the extremely difficult steps needed to end the downward spiral of voter suppression and start moving things in the other direction.
By electing like-minded officials, starting with President-elect Biden at the top of the pyramid, we can begin the hard work of enacting legislation that would restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act that was so brutally gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013′s Shelby County v. Holder case, as well as other laws that will make it easier to vote instead of harder. But for that plan to work, we’re probably going to need to find a few more folks like Nse Ufot and Stacey Abrams to connect with more young voters. Video gamers and stilt walkers ... stand back and stand by.