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Grassroots Organizers Flipped Georgia Blue. Here’s How They Did It.

The story of Georgia’s flip is best told through the experiences of organizers rooted in the community.

Kelan Gilbert, 11, watches Black Voters Matter staff visit his rural Black neighborhood to speak to and support Georgia voters in Blakely, Georgia, on November 2, 2020.

Georgia flipping blue may have caught some people by surprise, but to those organizing on the ground for the past several years, this moment was always a possibility. As the media look for quick explanations to regain narrative control, the story of Georgia’s flip is best told through the experiences of organizers rooted in the community beyond presidential election cycles.

“This work has been going on here for years,” said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, a power-building organization focused on empowering Black civic participation. Albright pointed to the consistent organizing that has happened over the last several years that decreased the gap in the overall vote total between the two parties and reduced the margin of victory for Republicans. “That gap has been going down [with each cycle]. And then to get to this point, it was just an incredible feeling.”

National media narratives center this moment as a part of the unfinished work from Stacey Abrams’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign and battle against voter suppression. This is only part of the story. Long before Abrams ran for governor, civic engagement organizers focused on increasing voter participation and leveraging the shifting state demographics in Georgia. Building on this work, Abrams founded the New Georgia Project with the goal of organizing previously disenfranchised voters, such as the 1 million voters removed from the voter rolls between 2012 and 2018, and expanding political participation by recruiting new voters. Recent lessons from organizers point to prioritizing specific issues affecting the communities they’re reaching out to, and developing entry points into political participation.

“When I was just following campaigns in 2016 and 2018, people barely talked about immigrant rights issues,” said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, director of the Asian American Advocacy Fund. “They barely talked about issues that were relevant to the Asian American community.”

While she saw instances of targeted voter outreach in 2016 – for example, efforts to engage with Muslim voters — there just wasn’t enough attention to the needs of communities. As a candidate for the Georgia State House of Representatives in 2018, Mahmood experienced the power of community conversations informing campaign messaging and strategy.

Mahmood said that more than Georgia turning blue, she is energized about opportunities to move on issues important to the immigrant communities her organization represents. “We’ve got commitments from candidates, especially sheriff’s candidates around ending programs like 287(g),” said Mahmood, referring to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) program that creates partnerships between state and local law enforcement. “And [they are] really taking a look at how local communities are impacted by things like immigration enforcement.”

Candidates for sheriff promising to overturn participation in the 287(g) program won election bids in Cobb and Gwinnett counties. Groups like Mijente and SONG Power (the power-building and advocacy arm of Southerners on New Ground) built on the work of Black and Brown organizers to sever the power of pro-deportation law enforcement. Collective power-building opportunities like elections helps bring awareness to communities about potential points of advocacy.

When asked about other issues impacting immigrant communities, Mahmood highlighted the challenges facing undocumented students in the state. “If you’re undocumented in Georgia, you are not able to attend school because there’s a lot of schools that you cannot attend, but the schools that you are able to attend you have to pay out of state tuition,” said Mahmood. As conversations ramp up nationally about student loan forgiveness and the cost of higher education, Mahmood hopes people will begin to understand the additional burden placed on undocumented students and families to achieve the same educational opportunities. “We’re losing a lot of our students to other states, because it’s cheaper and easier to access than Georgia, she said.”

Another issue of focus and concern is making driver’s licenses available for undocumented people. Driving without a license coupled with increased immigration enforcement and racial profiling puts some communities in greater danger.

In addition to connecting with communities on important issues, Mahmood stressed the value of having in-language organizing from trusted sources. “We had a team of community organizers that were doing ethnic specific outreach within their church groups, or their young adult groups, to make sure that they were reaching voters who aren’t already engaged,” Mahmood said. She noted a Korean organizer who did a survey to find out people’s plans for voting and if they did not plan on voting, finding out why. Being able to have conversations like this in the language people feel most comfortable speaking enabled organizers to address why people might not vote, and address uncertainty about the process.

Similar to the Asian American Advocacy Fund, organizations like Black Voters Matter utilize opportunities for collaboration as ways of building community power. Black Voters Matter has focused on addressing bread-and-butter issues impacting individuals, and has also worked with groups such as 9to5 Georgia outside of metro-Atlanta around issues including utilities in southwest Georgia and police violence across the state. “One of the most important victories in this state isn’t the presidential, but it’s the fact that Jackie Johnson is no longer the district attorney that covers the region where Ahmaud Arbery was murdered,” said Albright.

Part of that work involved election protection and providing pathways for combating voter suppression. As a part of its coalition work in Dougherty County, Black Voters Matter along with 9to5 Georgia, the Georgia NAACP, and several other regional organizations formed an election protection coalition. Amna Farooqi, an organizer with 9to5 Georgia based in Albany, Georgia, and member of the election protection coalition, said voter turnout increased in 2018 as compared to the prior midterm cycle, but said that election also showed the need for better coordination to address election protection concerns. The group made suggestions to the Dougherty County Board of Elections about providing adequate drop boxes for absentee ballots and having more than one early voting location.

During early voting for the general election this year, Farooqi and other organizers were harassed by election officials for handing out pre-packaged snacks and water to early voters and members of the community at-large. Volunteers were told they needed to be 150 feet or more away from the polling location, relying on a provision that prevents electioneering by partisan groups, campaigns, or candidates. But the election protection team members are all a part of nonprofit nonpartisan organizations. Their presence is not considered electioneering under the current law. “We should have a deeper bench of poll workers and poll managers, and better training,” said Farooqi. “There have been a lot of complaints about poll worker training and poll managers, in terms of them not being that clear on the law.”

Farooqi said that counties must innovate and find solutions to barriers to ballot access. “Even beyond the runoff, we’re looking at a broader electoral justice package [to] find solutions around [voter suppression],” Farooqi said.

While nationally some centrist Democrats have baselessly claimed a left-leaning agenda is to blame for losing House seats, Farooqi says Georgians need to be trusted to lead in their own communities. “All of Georgia is very determined in an organizing sense,” said Farooqi. “The most progressive radical change and strategy come from people that work in rural communities and people that have been here forever.”

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