How New Voters and Black Ladies Modified Politics in Georgia

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(THE CONVERSATION) In July 1964, Georgian restaurateur Lester Maddox broke the recently passed civil rights law by refusing to serve three Black Georgia Tech students at his Pickrick restaurant in Atlanta. Although this new federal law banned discrimination in public places, Maddox was determined to maintain a white-only dining room in which white customers were armed with pick handles – what he called “pickrick drumsticks” – to threaten black customers who wanted to have dinner there.

Maddox was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan when he successfully ran for governorship in 1974 and was once dubbed the “most racist governor in the south.” But hostile treatment of minorities was often Georgia’s chosen political style.

Until recently. On January 5, the Georgians elected a black pastor and a 33-year-old son of Jewish immigrants – Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff – to represent them in the Senate. They also elected Democrat Joe Biden as president in November.

Georgia’s move from blood red to deep purple gave the Democrats their slim majority in the Senate, which surprised Americans on both sides of the aisle. This historic moment was a long time coming.

I’m a political scientist studying American Politics with an emphasis on minority voters and urban politics. In my research, I’ve examined the peculiar mix of factors that led to Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories, mainly a constituency that has diversified for years and the efforts of many hardworking black women.

The new south

The elections of Biden, Warnock and Ossoff mark the culmination of years of tug-of-war among members of the racially, ethnically and ideologically diverse constituency of Georgia.

Georgia’s demographics are changing rapidly. In 2019, it ranked fifth among U.S. states with an influx of newcomers. According to census data, 284,541 residents arrived from abroad this year.

Many of the newest voters in Georgia come from democratic groups: minorities, young people, unmarried women. Between 2000 and 2019 of Georgia [Black population increased by 48%], mostly because people moved there from outside the state. African Americans now make up 30% of the Georgian population. The Latino population has increased 14% since 2000, and Latinos now make up 9% of Georgians.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s white population declined slightly, from 57% in 2010 to 54% in 2019. Non-Latino whites are expected to be a numerical minority in Georgia within the next decade.

Only 30% of Georgia white voters voted for Warnock and Ossoff on January 5th. But the couple, who often fought together, both won about 90% of the black votes and about half of the Latinos. Two-thirds of Asian Americans – a small but rapidly growing electoral power in Georgia – voted for Ossoff, Warnock and Biden.

Black women bring new voters

Georgia’s rotating electorate began producing new types of elected officials a few years ago.

In 2017, Bee Nguyen, the daughter of Vietnamese refugees, became the first Vietnamese-American woman to be elected into Georgia state law. She won the Democratic seat of Stacey Abrams when Abrams ran for governor after a decade in the statehouse.

Abrams lost her race to become America’s first black female governor in 2018 with 55,000 votes, or 1.4 percentage points. Analysts attributed their defeat in part to low turnout rates, particularly among black voters.

This – along with credible allegations of voter suppression – is one reason Abrams soon stepped up its voter registration efforts.

Abrams began organizing voters in 2006 when she stood up for the legislature. Through 2018, their non-partisan voter registration group, the New Georgia Project, worked with the National Coalition for Civic Participation, the Georgia Coalition for the Popular Agenda, Pro Georgia, the Black, Voters Matter Fund, Georgia STAND-UP, and others to mobilize black voters.

These groups, all led by black women – Nse Ufot, Melanie Campbell, Helen Butler, Tamieka Atkins, LaTosha Brown and Deborah Scott – helped register another 800,000 Georgian voters between 2018 and 2020. Black voters and young people were special targets.

Exactly two years after Abrams’ defeat in November 2018, Joe Biden Georgia won by 13,000 votes – the first Democratic presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1992. Warnock and Ossoff also benefited from all of these new Georgia voters.

Georgia’s democratic electorate is young, black, Latin American and Asian American. It is the new south – and black women helped shape it.

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Record voter turnout

Ossoff and Warnock always had a tough race in Georgia, but the nature of the runoff elections in Georgia reinforced their underdog status.

In Georgia, if none of the candidates wins 50% or more of the votes in the general election, the top two candidates will run off against each other. This system supposedly ensures that those elected have the support of the majority of voters, but in practice minorities usually lose out to whites due to racially polarized votes. Historically, white and black Georgians choose the candidate from their racial group. Because the white turnout was higher, white Conservative candidates won.

The runoff election on January 5th turned tradition on its head. Over 4.4 million Georgians voted – a 60% turnout that nearly doubled the number of the last runoff elections in the Georgian Senate in 2008.

In this year’s runoff, the Democrats flocked to the polls during the early election, giving Warnock and Ossoff an edge. Republican voter turnout lagged in predominantly white rural areas in the early term. It increased across the country on election day, but the Democrats continued to vote that day. Republicans couldn’t make up the difference.

Before Warnock and Ossoff, Georgia had never elected an African American to national office. And it never elected a Jewish senator.

Republican failures

In Georgia, too, the Republican Party contributed to its losses.

Some analysts blame Trump for the low turnout of Republicans in the Senate runoff election. After his loss in November, he claimed Georgia’s elections were “rigged” against his party. Resistance from then Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to increasing economic controls from $ 600 to $ 2,000 at a time of acute unemployment, poverty and starvation likely hurt Republican Senate candidates David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler as well.

Ultimately, however, it was Georgia’s rotating electorate that brought the Democrats into office. The 2022 midterm elections will show just how far Georgia is from the politics of the Pickrick restaurant in Lester Maddox.

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