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Georgia Organizers Won Because They Didn’t Treat Elections as a Be-All, End-All

The record voter turnout was the result of long-term organizing and investment in collective community-building.

Janice Colbert looks at her voting sticker after casting her vote in the Georgia runoff election at C.T. Martin Natatorium and Recreation Center on January 5, 2021, in Atlanta, Georgia.

Georgia’s Senate runoff election electrified the nation and demonstrated to the world what organizers have always known to be true: Investing in communities across long-term cycles of engagement will yield electoral wins. And Georgia organizers have been sharing this playbook with anyone willing to listen over the past few years.

In the approximately eight weeks between the November general election and the January runoff election, both Democratic candidates for Senate won their races by more votes than Joe Biden beat Donald Trump. What happened in Georgia was not a fluke or luck. Turning out a record number of voters for a second time was possible due to the long-term organizing and investment in collective community-building across demographics.

“Once again, the nation is realizing what we have known all along,” said Nsé Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project and the New Georgia Project Action Fund, in an email statement provided to Truthout. “Georgia is a battleground state thanks to the relentless work done toward investing in and turning out voters of color. Senator-elect Raphael Warnock’s win is an extraordinary moment in Georgia’s and our country’s history.”

The lessons from Georgia have taken on new importance as the nation grapples with the aftermath of the attack on the Capitol in Washington, D.C., and other coordinated acts of aggression. On the same day as the D.C. attack, reports surfaced of a militia presence inside the Georgia Capitol, with the secretary of state being evacuated from the building as a precaution.

“But then you come around the next day and people are literally swarming the Capitol in the name of overturning an election and trying to take away the power of Black voters,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, in an interview with the Associated Press. “So, while it’s a victory that’s worth celebrating … it’s still in this wider context of what our larger struggles are and we’ve got a long way to go.”

The broader struggle afoot in Georgia involves embracing a different approach to electoral politics that treats elections as opportunity points and not the end-all, be-all. More than flipping two U.S. Senate seats, the results from the Georgia runoff election reflect the self-determination and perseverance of communities working together while also combatting massive voter suppression and disinformation.

The Georgia win also shows the importance of coalition-building across voting blocs. Instead of treating groups of voters as competitors for resources and attention, Georgia groups recognized the important role each had to play in ultimate victory. Black voters and organizers have a deep history in the region, and forged partnerships with other organizers of color to amplify their collective impact.

Organizations like Mijente, Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights, PODER, the Latino Community Fund Georgia, Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta and Asian American Advocacy Fund interacted with communities in ways that were linguistically and culturally relevant. These organizations (and many more) worked to remove the barriers to ballot access built into the process. Civic engagement groups also understand that civic participation is not limited to those who are entitled to vote. Some of the most amazing organizers and volunteers have been people who are undocumented, under age or formerly incarcerated. Although individuals themselves might not be able to vote, they can play a valuable role in helping to turn out their friends, family and other members of the community.

“Despite the Republican Party’s concerted efforts to make it harder for Blacks and Latinos to vote, we came out in record numbers to elect candidates who will work with us instead of against us,” said Esteban Garces with Votar Es Poder PAC in a statement. “We turned out in record numbers to vote for a future that keeps our families and communities safe, such as fair wages, great schools, affordable healthcare, and immigration reform that protects the rights of immigrants. We voted for leaders who we can hold accountable, respect our rights and govern for everyone.”

Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Atlanta reported connecting with voters in nine languages, including English. The group’s advocacy led to “DeKalb and Cobb counties providing officially translated composite ballots for the first time in state history in an Asian language (Korean).”

Organizers like Gayla Tillman stress the importance of changing the approach to voter engagement from one that is transactional. “Instead of having transactions with voters, we need to be helping to transform our communities,” said Tillman in an interview with Truthout. “[Our communities need] to be autonomous and believe in the collective power [we] already have, we just need to tap into it.”

Gayla helped organize an effort called The People’s PSC, a community education campaign to inform people about the public service commission race. Responsible for regulating utility costs, the public service commission race provided an opportunity for voters to address high utility rates and concerns about shutoffs in the middle of a pandemic. A report released in late 2019 revealed Georgia as the fifth most expensive state for utilities in the country. Often left out of the national runoff coverage, the public service commission race represents a missed opportunity to flip a third statewide seat this cycle. “There’s so much at stake in regards to the climate, economic justice and especially racial justice,” Tillman told Truthout. They said that the people of Georgia shouldn’t feel like folks only care when a federal election is at stake.

Continuing to build on the work across election cycles includes recognizing the power and impact of people beyond the votes they cast. As the 2021 legislative cycle is underway, connecting previously activated communities with additional opportunities to participate in the process will be crucial to advancing issues impacting these communities.

Redefining our relationship with contemporary political systems provides an opportunity for people to see the potential impact of their involvement. Within this approach, movement or issue-based organizing is connected to electoral work, not detached from it. There’s a recognition of the year-round engagement across multiple opportunity points to connect with members of the community and potential voters; for example, health care access (including expanding Medicaid), immigration reform, protecting and expanding Georgia’s safety-net programs, and safeguarding against attacks on voting rights. Organizing in this way also provides a means to look at accountability as a part of the election process and not something that is relegated to some point in the distant future.

Georgia has shown what is possible, but it is not alone in organizing impacted communities around issues that matter. Organizations and grassroots community efforts exist in every state across the South and many other places around the country. People are breaking through and making this change happen, shifting the culture of civic engagement and building alongside communities, not over them.

“We are undoing a history of voter suppression and injustice in Black and Brown communities,” Ufot declared. “The changes we are seeing now didn’t happen overnight, and we are not solving our challenges with just one vote.”

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