As James Brown’s funk classic Say it loud, I’m Black and I’m Proud pulsed through the mobile sound system, Cliff Albright marched up a steep roadway, bellowing into a microphone trying to get people out of their doors.
“Let’s go y’all,” he said. “Black voters matter every day, everywhere.”
Albright and other members of the organization he co-founded, Black Voters Matter, walk with pride in these central Georgia neighborhoods. And for good reason.
Turnout here in Houston county soared in the 2020 election. And although the county, staunchly Republican for decades, stayed red – Joe Biden narrowed the margin by over 6%. It’s in no small part due to the months of organizing here to mobilize the county’s Black voters, who make up around a third of the population.
It was also the later vote tallies, from mail-in voting here in Houston county, that helped propel Biden past Trump to flip the state of Georgia. A fact that many people in these communities celebrate with a deep source of pride.
“We put a lot of work in here,” Albright said, as he handed out literature, face masks and an invitation to a drive-in watch party of the evening’s US senate debate. “It’s been all year round, because we say Black votes matter 365. We do work not just around elections, but on the issues.”
As early voting starts on Monday in the crucial Georgia Senate runoff elections, organizers like Albright, critical players in the efforts to flip the state from Republican to Democrat for the first time since 1992, are once again gearing up for another election.
Black and minority organizers, who have for years been pushing to turn this state’s rapidly diversifying demographics into a more progressive politics, are being called on again to secure two Senate seats that would effectively hand Democrats control of the US legislature.
Albright is optimistic that the communities he has worked to mobilize will turnout again and predicts, in fact, a rise in turnout.
“You’ve got people now who have seen Georgia flip, when previously believed their vote might not matter. And what they’ve seen is that, you know what, if we come out in record numbers we can actually change the state. So some folks who may not have done it in November, who now want to be a part of it,” he said.
As Trump continues to undermine the result in Georgia, and the election at-large, Albright believes the president’s baseless claims of widespread fraud, significantly directed at many communities of color around the country, will serve as extra motivation.
“The fact that he [Trump] is out here trying to target us, to take our votes away, I think that’s going to stir up even more excitement,” he said. “If Trump keeps acting a fool, it’s going to backfire.”
Black Voters Matter’s outreach efforts in central Georgia have been led by Fenika Miller, a lifelong resident of the city of Warner Robins, who has spent most of her career in grassroots organizing here. She admits feeling exhausted after the year-long election season. Thanksgiving was her first day off all year. It also marked the first time she had slept for eight hours.
“This year feels like a three-year election cycle,” she said.
Miller was also selected as one of 16 Democrats, including former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, to cast an electoral college ballot for Biden on Monday, an honor she believes is a reflection of her community’s hard work.
“The last time Georgia flipped I was a high school student. And the first time I’m going to cast a vote as an elector is going to be for a Democratic president. That’s a big deal,” she said.
Miller is one of a number of Black women, including Abrams, that Democrats relied on in November who will be out again in January, empowered by the result last month.
“Black women are leading our movements,” she said. “We are on the frontlines in a way that people don’t always necessarily see. We didn’t do this work to save our country, we did it to save ourselves, our families, our communities, our jobs, our childcare, just the basic things that our community needs.”
Grassroots organizers across Georgia say the Covid-19 pandemic and protests over racial injustice helped spur people to motivate voters in ways they previously haven’t seen before.
“Covid has highlighted to people how policy impacts their everyday lives and that elected officials make those policies. If you look at whether I get a stimulus relief for my business, some elected official makes that determination,” said Helen Butler, the executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a group that works to get people registered to vote. “They knew it all along, but Covid has really brought it home because it is impacting so many people.”
Nse Ufot, the CEO of the New Georgia Project, the voter registration group Stacey Abrams started in 2014, said the group had learned from the 2016 and 2018 elections in the state and become more vigilant about watching the entire registration and election process. That includes making sure that registered voters actually make it on to the rolls and aren’t wrongly removed once they’re there, she said (Georgia has faced scrutiny in recent years for its aggressive – and sometimes inaccurate – removal of voters). On election day in November, she said organizers showed up at polling stations that had been removed to give voters new information about where to go.
“In the past that would have just meant that people were frustrated,” she said.
Still, severe obstacles remain.
Georgia secretary of state Brad Raffensperger announced last month his office was investigating the New Georgia Project, focusing on an effort to get supporters to write postcards to people encouraging them to register and vote. Raffensperger suggested the group was soliciting votes from people who are ineligible, noting that he had received postcards from New Georgia Project addressed to his son, who died two years ago. Ufot strongly denies any wrongdoing, saying her group relies on state and other data to figure out where to send the postcards.
Earlier this year, a nonprofit, the Voter Information Center, drew ire from election officials across the country for using faulty data to send misleading or incorrect voting information.
“The fact that they’ve had three press conferences from the capitol stairs as opposed to reaching out to us tells us everything we need to know about their priorities and what this is designed to do,” Ufot said.
“We use real lawyers to defend us and to defend our work. Every dollar that we have to spend to defend ourselves against the nuisance and partisan investigations is a dollar that we aren’t able to put into the field to register new voters and have high quality conversations about the power of their vote and the importance of this moment.”
After years of investing in organizing, Ufot said it was rewarding to see the work pay off.
“I’m definitely one of those people that’s like ‘you weren’t with us before November. Where have you been?’ Our position, our posture, is welcome to the fight, welcome to the work, grab a shovel,’” she said.