How Georgia set the bar for voter turnout in the South
This story is the second of a two-part series produced by the LSU Manship School News Service and published by WRKF and WWNO.
Rev. Timothy McDonald, the pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church in Atlanta, remembers being approached in a grocery store parking lot ahead of the fall 2022 elections.
The two people who walked up to him were working for Fair Fight and New Georgia Project, voter advocacy groups founded by Stacey Abrams that had helped significantly increase turnout among Black voters in the state.
“It was that kind of excitement that was out there,” McDonald said about get-out-the-vote efforts in Georgia.
Over the last decade, an increasing number of voter-registration and -education groups have worked in Georgia to increase participation by minority voters.
Groups like Georgia Stand Up, ProGeorgia and the ones McDonald encountered set up voter registration tables and voter drives in communities across the state, went door-to-door to register people, organized rallies and hosted events with food trucks, music and dancing.
Voter rolls also grew in 2016 after Georgia started automatically registering people to vote when they got driver’s licenses. An influx of people moving to the state expanded the voter rolls further. By 2020, the number of Black voters in the state had increased by about 130,000 people, with a quarter of those attributed to the population increase. Black residents now make up nearly 30% of registered voters in Georgia.
As Democratic groups poured money into voter efforts, turnout in the state increased enough to help turn Georgia blue in the 2020 presidential election for the first time since 1992. Two Democrats also won U.S. Senate runoff elections in January 2021, and one of them, Rev. Raphael Warnock won reelection in 2022.
A swing state in the Deep South
The success of Black organizers in Georgia raises the question of whether similar efforts could also yield results in other Deep South states like Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana, where voter turnout is at a historic low.
About a third of residents in Georgia and Louisiana, and 38% of Mississippians are Black. In Georgia, Black voter turnout was 31.8% in the fall 2022 elections, a low turnout compared to 2018. But in Louisiana’s general election this November, turnout among Black voters was even lower at about 18%.
Still, according to University of Georgia political science professor Charles Bullock, a Democratic candidate in the Deep South needs what he describes as a “30-30 election” — one in which Black residents account for 30% of all votes cast and the Democratic candidate earns 30% of the white vote.
Voting advocates in Louisiana say they face widespread apathy among Black residents, many of whom have lost hope that their voices will be heard. Louisiana also lacks the influx of residents from other states that the Atlanta-area has seen and is not a political swing state like Georgia, where voter groups can attract millions of dollars in outside funds.
Churches play important role
Lisa Baker, community relations specialist for Elizabeth Baptist Church in Atlanta, and McDonald, the pastor at First Iconium Baptist Church, believe churches are a great place to encourage more Black people to vote.
“The church historically has been the place where you knew where we would be,” Baker said.
Under McDonald’s direction, about 600 faith leaders across Georgia attended a Zoom call last fall to discuss the U.S. Senate election and organize efforts like voter-registration tables and voter drives.
Baker, who has served as her church’s voting coordinator for more than 15 years, participated in these efforts and went door-to-door in her neighborhood to register voters.
“I sometimes would think and wonder, ‘If I had not stopped at their door, would they really have taken the initiative to go and to do it?’” Baker said.
Baker helped assemble the voter-registration, -education and -mobilization team at her church to set up voter-registration tables for each service and any time outside groups visited the church campus.
Her church also played short messages, including one from Sen. Warnock, during several services with information on how to register and calls to vote early.
McDonald said his church also emphasized early voting, and during his services, he had one simple message for his members: “We can make history. Let’s do it.”
McDonald’s church has about 1,500 members, and he estimates their voter turnout was above 95%. He feels the mobilization efforts in Georgia were successful because there was such large-scale organization.
“It was the first time we’ve had this kind of coordination in a long time to be honest,” McDonald said.
“Every church was important,” he added. “I don’t care if you had 1,000 members or if you had 100 members.”
Stacey Abrams helped turn tide
Black registration and mobilization efforts in Georgia were at first largely focused on voting rights activist Stacey Abrams’ 2018 run for Georgia governor, though Abrams’ civic engagement efforts began years earlier.
Abrams narrowly lost in the 2018 gubernatorial election to Republican Brian Kemp. Despite Abrams’ loss, the tight margin in that election proved to many that a Democrat could win in Georgia.
Focus then turned to the 2020 presidential election and the Senate races in 2021 and 2022, when Warnock defeated Republican Herschel Walker in a tight runoff.
Abrams also ran for governor in 2022 but once again lost to Kemp, this time by a larger margin of 7.5 points. Voter turnout in the 2022 election was slightly lower than the 2018 election despite a larger population, suggesting voter-registration and -mobilization efforts may be leveling off.
Griggs, of Georgia’s NAACP, stressed the importance of tapping into the common experiences and issues of Black churches and communities, like housing inequities and educational disparities, and tying that to political power.
He called it a “reverse Southern strategy.” The Southern strategy was the name for an approach used in the 1960s to turn out white voters by appealing to racism against African Americans.
Griggs also emphasized a need to change the conversation in urban and rural communities, saying that the rural message should focus on empowering Black farmers and agriculture.
“You have to meet people where they are with the issues that are on the kitchen table,” Griggs said.
Replicating GOTV efforts in other states
NAACP ground efforts stretched across Georgia and included planning “votercades” — motorcades to promote voting — setting up tables at college fairs, organizing tables at community events like the Atlanta Greek Picnic and having “parties to the polls,” which Griggs described as similar to giant school homecoming events with bands, DJs and food.
“One thing that African Americans and people of color understand is how to party with a purpose,” he said.
Griggs suggests that activists in Louisiana organize similar events with freebies that may draw in potential voters, like Mardi Gras beads and gumbo.
Still, Georgia has one key component Louisiana lacks — the Atlanta metropolitan area, an economic magnet that has five times as many residents as New Orleans and its suburbs.
During the four years between 2016 and 2020, Atlanta added 301,000 voters, accounting for the majority of the increase in the state. Georgia also boasts larger Hispanic and Asian populations than other Deep South states, and Bullock, the UGA political science professor, said the white voter population in Atlanta is also becoming increasingly Democratic as more people move there from other areas of the country.
“They’re not kind of caught up in some of the Southern history of Black versus white, so it makes them more inclined, probably, to vote Democratic,” Bullock said.
Bullock also noted that Louisiana’s population is fairly stagnant and said it will be difficult to increase turnout with no growth. Migration data shows the state’s largest population centers lost roughly 317,000 residents between 2005 and 2020.
But Georgia’s voting activists say other states should still follow their lead.
“People will join,” McDonald, the Atlanta pastor, said. “They’ve just never been asked.”
Griggs said voting groups in Georgia recognized the lack of Black voter turnout as an untapped resource, and he said it could only take a few organizations coming together to achieve similar results elsewhere.
“Georgia didn’t turn blue,” he said. “Georgia turned Black.”