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US election swing states: Georgia on our minds

Why the southern state continues to cause hope and heartache for Democrats.

 

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Ahead of the 2016 US presential election, New York Magazine asked, “Could Hillary Clinton Win Georgia?” The same year, The New York Times ran an op-ed arguing, “Why Hillary Clinton Might Win Georgia.” 

Trump won the state.

In 2017, in a special election held to fill the seat left open by then-Representative Tom Price, who resigned to become Donald Trump’s secretary of health and human services, Jon Ossoff, a Democrat, finished first in an all-party primary – but since he won less than 50 per cent of the vote, Georgia’s sixth congressional district moved to a run-off election. He was endorsed by civil rights icon and congressman John Lewis, by progressive superstar and senator Bernie Sanders, and by the state house Democratic leader Stacey Abrams. Ossoff broke national fundraising records. Yet his opponent, the Republican Karen Handel, won with 51.9 per cent of the overall vote.

In 2018, Stacey Abrams ran against Brian Kemp for governor. Kemp kept his position of Georgia’s secretary of state, which oversees elections, while running in the election. His office, which had cancelled more than a million voter registrations between 2012 and 2018, announced it was investigating Georgia’s Democratic Party two days before the election for “possible cybercrimes”. Still, Abrams had a chance. She was charismatic, and she would have made history as the first black female governor. She was endorsed by Sanders, Oprah Winfrey and Barack Obama. She lost by 50,000 votes.

Here the story changes: Abrams, in her concession speech, announced she would be creating Fair Fight Action, a voting rights non-profit organisation. Today, with Biden polling ahead in the 2020 presidential election, and Democrats holding their breath that history won’t repeat itself, the question is not only, “Will Georgia turn blue?”, it is also: “Are there unfair obstacles that might keep every voter who wants to vote from the polls, and prevent every vote being counted?”

[See also: The US 2020 Election Swing States]

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Georgia is in the conversation about “swing states because of its demographics.

Charles Bullock, III, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, said the south is splitting. Some Republican states are becoming more Republican, and some Republican states are becoming Democratic. Georgia appears to be in the latter camp.

 

 

 

For years, Georgia’s population was largely divided between white and black Georgians. In 2000, for example, the population was 65.1 per cent white and 28.7 per cent black. Now, though, not only is the black population growing, the Asian-American and Hispanic populations are growing, too. From 2000 to 2012, the number of Asian Americans registered to vote doubled, and the number of actual ballots cast by Asian Americans rose by 168 per cent over the same period.

Non-white voters are historically more likely than white voters to vote for Democrats. Additionally, thousands are moving to Georgia from outside the south, some bringing their Democratic-leaning voting preferences with them: in 2018, 69,106 people moved from elsewhere in the United States to Georgia, making it fifth in the nation as a destination for state-to-state migration, with residents moving in from Florida, New York, Tennessee, Texas and California.

And of the traditionally older, whiter Republican voters? “To put it very simply,” Bullock said, “Republicans are dying off and their grandchildren are voting Democratic.”

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Not all votes in Georgia are cast or counted equally. Of the 2018 election, Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, noted that Brian Kemp remaining as secretary of the state while running for governor was “technically legal, [but] the optics of it were deeply problematic”. The person overseeing the election was also running in it.

Furthermore, Georgia put in place certain other policies that could have effectively, if not intentionally, suppressed voters. Voting locations were closed across the state following the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act, which previously required local governments to seek federal clearance before making changes to voting practices. The reinstatement in 2017 by Kemp and Georgia’s General Assembly of “exact match”, a policy meaning a voter’s information must be an “exact match” to records held by Georgia’s Department of Driver Services or Social Security Administration, negatively affected voters of colour, according to a lawsuit brought forth by voting rights groups. And there is the spectre of voter suppression, Gillespie said, in the suspicion some voters hold that certain precincts serving African-American and low-income areas have their voter turnout consistently underestimated, which means they receive fewer resources on election day, which in turn means longer lines to vote. “We'll never be able to quantify who dropped out of line,” Gillespie said, “who went home and didn't come back.”

“Georgia is not a red state,” Abigail Collazo, Abrams’s former spokesperson wrote in an email to the New Statesman, “it is a blue state with a history of voter suppression.”

 

 

 

This doesn’t necessarily mean history will repeat itself. Georgia has largely moved away from “exact match”. Fulton County, in which Atlanta sits, is apparently working to fix election problems.

And voters are different, too. In Georgia, Collazo said, there is “a newly engaged electorate that is more determined than ever to be represented by those who put our families and communities first”.

“Baseline awareness is heightened,” said Gillespie. This is in part because of the 2018 governor election, she added, and in part because Donald Trump’s “baseless allegations of voter fraud” and “alleged slowdowns at the post office” means that people are “legitimately worried” about whether their mail-in ballots will be received on time. High turnout in early voting and high use of mail-in voting is because of the pandemic, but also because there are, according to Gillespie, “people who had their guards up to be on the lookout for evidence of voter suppression”.

“Folks on the ground here are taking nothing for granted, which is why most organisers are paying more attention to ensuring voters have the resources they need to cast their ballots safely and securely than they are paying to the latest polls,” Collazo said.

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That is not to say Democrats – not only Biden, but also Jon Ossoff, who is running to unseat the senator David Perdue, and Reverend Raphael Warnock, running to unseat Kelly Loeffler in a special election  – will win Georgia.

Georgia’s new secretary of state Brad Raffensperger has warned of long lines in the last week of early voting. The level of voter enthusiasm indicated by those lines is not unexpected, according to Callazo, and “there will be no excuse for the secretary of state's office to claim they were unprepared to handle their responsibilities”.

In a close election, the reality of black Americans and low-income voters having to spend hours in line to cast their votes could make a difference. A small margin of people deciding to stay at home could make a difference, too.

According to numbers available this week, Gillespie said, “black voters are turning out for early voting at a rate somewhat slower than their voter registration numbers.” That’s not good news for Biden, whose “quest to win Georgia hinges on minority turnout”.

Bullock thinks another group also matters: suburban white women. To win, Bullock said, Biden will need black voters to make up 30 per cent of the overall vote, as well as securing at least 30 per cent of the white vote. “The first part is more achievable,” he said. “The challenge has been to get that 30 per cent of the white vote. No recent Democrat has come close.” And well-educated, white suburban women “are not moving Democratic as fast as similar women in some other states”.

Either way, Georgia today is not the Georgia of two or four, ten or 20 years ago. “Recent election results show the edge Republicans have enjoyed has been narrowing over time,” Gillespie said. “The double-digit victories of the mid-aughts have been replaced by single digits.”

And unlike years past, both the Democrats and Republicans need to make an effort to “get out the vote”, said Gillespie. “You can't take for granted any more that there are more Republicans than Democrats in the state.”

Emily Tamkin is the New Statesman’s US editor