Young black voters are dominating Georgia’s midterms, one student at a time

Clark Atlanta University students shuffling down the campus boardwalk to go to and from their classes on Sept. 20 were met by a group of their peers, who conveyed a single instruction: vote.

“We wanted to make sure we were in the faces of the students,” said Janiah Henry, a Clark Atlanta University senior and chair of the CAU Votes initiative for civic engagement. “We had interactive tables. We had food trucks.”

The group has partnered with Greek fraternities and sororities and local non-profit organizations for the voter registration event on National Voter Registration Day. Clark Atlanta University is one of several historically black colleges and universities in Georgia.

“We educated them on the midterm elections and made sure they could vote in the state of Georgia,” she said. “We were able to register over 500 students and get them to vote!”

Henry, 20, said she has supported civic engagement since she was 13 and could not have imagined how much young black voters would work to change the political position of Georgia.

Something has changed in 2018. After Stacey Abrams’ failed run for governor of Georgia earlier this year, black college students knew they had to do something to increase black turnout in the state — especially with the 2020 presidential election just around the corner. Between 2012 and 2016, black student turnout fell by 5.3%, with young voters historically responsible for some of the lowest turnouts in the country.

But in 2020, young voters made up 20% of the state’s vote, according to NBC News Exit Polls, with 90% of black youth voting for Joe Biden, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life of Tufts University. Young voter turnout in Georgia was among the highest in the South, and young voters helped turn the historically republican state blue.

That victory is partly credited to grassroots organizations like the Campus Vote Project, Rise, the New Georgia Project and others focused on inspiring young black voters. Now, student-led groups are continuing that effort as Georgia’s midterms approach, keeping the momentum going in everything from social media challenges to voter events at HBCU homecoming and more.

“It was really amazing to see. Each generation will be the next group of leaders, but I think my generation brings something different,” Henry said, acknowledging that ensuring turnout in the midterm elections comes with challenges.

“Organizing around the midterms was a bit difficult because people didn’t understand the meaning of the midterms,” ​​she said. “People often don’t understand that their frustration in the primary and in the presidential election is because they didn’t pay attention to the midterms. We try to let the students know how important this time is. That is the message we are conveying to young people in Georgia.”

Increasing the number of black youth voters has not been easy. First, supporters of the right to vote needed to understand why black students didn’t vote. The Campus Vote Project, through its HBCU Legacy Initiative, partnered with the NAACP Youth and College Division to release a 2022 report that identified several obstacles standing in the way of black students voting at HBCU. These included a lack of funding and administrative support for civic engagement efforts, inconsistent outreach by political parties, and misinformation among students.

In response to the report, organizers began using a targeted approach to speak to young Black voters through social media challenges, livestreams with Black leaders, campus tours to encourage voting, and campaigning events at HBCU homecomings. In addition to voter registration events — filled with games, prizes, food and music — and online engagement, organizers have also increased hands-on outreach and worked to make voting more accessible to students.

“We’ve been working to create locations for early voting on campus,” said Ciarra Malone, the Georgia campus voting project coordinator. “That’s very important because when you think of students, you think of their course load and work hours, and often they can’t go to their designated district from 7am to 7pm. So granting access to the campus is very important, big deal.”

Clark Atlanta University students dance at a voter registration ceremony September 20.Sojourner Ahebee/NBC News

Try this To America The Power of the Black Vote podcast series. Ahead of Midterms 2022, presenter Trymaine Lee visits some of America’s most prominent HBCUs to understand how the next generation of black voters are shaping America’s future. listen now.

Malone, who graduated from Kennesaw State University in 2020, said the group has even worked to provide students with Uber codes and other transportation to polling stations. She added that providing students with information about where to vote and how to register, how to fill out absentee ballots, develop voting plans and research election issues is key to improving young people’s turnout.

“Trying to provide students with as much information as possible because disinformation is also a really big obstacle to overcome,” she said.

In 2020, the New Georgia Project emerged as one of the most zealous youth voter support groups. The organization Abrams founded focused on new, innovative ways to reach voters, like sneaker giveaways and celebrity-packed Twitch livestreams. Developing new strategies has been key to mobilizing young black voters, said Alana Moss, a researcher at the New Georgia Project.

“We understand that we need to meet young voters where they are,” said Moss, 25. “By finding creative ways to reach them, we can achieve our goals. We try to combine culture with elections.”

The organization has brought together schools like Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in its Georgia Campus Voting Challenge, an initiative that encourages colleges and universities in the state to increase voter turnout and civic engagement. This is paramount, Moss said, as the midterm elections draw near and young people voice their opinions on a myriad of issues.

She said the group’s research showed that the George Floyd protests of 2020 further spurred the generation towards civic engagement, while racial justice remains an issue on the ballot that young voters are passionate about. Moss also highlighted gun violence, reproductive rights and health care as the issues prioritizing black youth ahead of the midterms.

“Our team is aggressively out and about in the community, knocking on doors and making sure we have community conversations,” Moss said. “We continue to monitor the polls to see what issues people care about and what obstacles they’re experiencing so we can tackle those, like hiring election observers.”

What’s on the ballot

Georgia has emerged as a competitive battleground state in the midterm elections, where voters will choose between Democratic Senator Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker for Senator and Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for governor.

Voter turnout among young people has been increasing across the country since 2016, according to Vlad Medenica, deputy director of GenForward, a national poll that prioritizes young voters. He said mobilization is a key factor in Georgia’s groundbreaking turnout among young people in 2020. Well, he added, “The big question mark this year is whether the political parties can really reach out to these voters and motivate them to vote.” ”

When it comes to young voters, Medenica said, the issues that concern them most are the ones that plague society to a greater extent.

“In our most recent survey, inflation was the issue ranked most important for young adults, including young black adults,” Medenica said. “Inflation affects us all, especially younger people as they struggle with higher prices at the grocery store, at the pump and also on rent payments. Young voters are generally quite demanding. They think about the things that affect their lives.”

He added: “In second and third place, particularly among young black voters, were gun violence, abortion and reproductive rights, which are big issues in general. But they are especially important for young black voters nationally.”

Georgia is one of several states to introduce strict abortion restrictions after the Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Roe v. Wade had picked up. A federal appeals court in July overturned a lower court ruling, allowing a restrictive abortion law banning most abortions once there is a “detectable human heartbeat” to go into effect in the state.

Though new polls show Abrams struggling to close the gap while Kemp and Warnock lead in a close race against Walker, 2021 could be an indicator of what the polls can expect from young black voters. Young people in Georgia, ages 18-29, voted primarily for Democratic candidates in the 2021 Georgia Senate runoff, according to CIRCLE, voting 64% for Warnock. More than 90% of young black voters supported the Democrats in this election.

Now, as organizers work to mobilize voters for the midterms, proponents say it’s important that black students, like those at HBCUs, be seen as a vital, necessary voting bloc and not a group to be exploited for political gain must become.

“They are very active participants, full participants in the citizen process,” said Dylan Sellers, manager of the Campus Vote Project’s HBCU Legacy Initiative. “It’s not just about remembering that they exist when it comes to voting when you’re looking for a black population. It means treating them as full partners and seeing them as part of contemporary society.”