By Estelle Anderson
New York City, New York
If Election Day 2020 were a film, then Georgia’s unexpected shift in support of president-elect Joe Biden would be its climactic plot twist. For over twenty-five years, Republican presidential candidates have claimed the state. Biden, however, shattered this electoral pattern when he officially won Georgia on November 20 by just over 12,000 votes, becoming the first Democratic candidate to conquer the state since Bill Clinton in 1992.
This notable switch in Georgia’s electoral politics was no miracle. Democrats have voting rights champion Stacey Abrams, as well as the other advocates and leaders who worked alongside her, to thank. Since 2018, Fair Fight Action and the New Georgia Project, two voting rights organizations Ms. Abrams founded, have helped register over 800,000 Georgians to vote—especially targeting voters of color, who formed a crucial portion of Georgians who voted for Mr. Biden. As well as inspiring individuals to register to vote, Ms. Abrams’ organizations fought to protect them from rampant voter suppression, building voter protection teams across the country to guard citizens’ right to vote in the 2020 election. Ms. Abrams did not enact these monumental changes alone; she was aided by a powerful network of volunteers, staff, and other voter registration advocates throughout the state. Among them were Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia for the People’s Agenda; Nse Ufot, current CEO of the New Georgia Project, and Tameika Atkins, executive director of ProGeorgia.
Ms. Abrams’ advocacy for voting rights first gained national attention in 2018, when she lost Georgia’s gubernatorial election to then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp. The election has become infamous for the voter suppression that many allege was orchestrated by Republicans to ensure Ms. Abrams’ loss. In the year prior to the gubernatorial election, 668,000 voters (disproportionately people of color) were purged from Georgia voter rolls. Greg Palast, journalist and director of the Palast Investigative Fund, discovered that out of the 400,000 Georgia voters who were purged for moving out of their voting district, 340,134 had never moved in the first place, meaning that they were wrongfully stripped of their voter registration status.
Before the 2018 election, 214 polling locations were closed around the state (mostly in African-American communities), thousands of absentee applications of voters of color were lost or rejected, and tens of thousands of voters were forced to wait in hours-long lines at the polls. Masses of voters of color who likely would have voted for Ms. Abrams were unable to, resulting in her razor-thin loss of less than one percentage point.
These alleged voter suppression tactics were led by Governor Brian Kemp, who, as Georgia’s Secretary of State, was in charge of election oversight. In other words, the same individual running against Ms. Abrams was also controlling how the election was run.
After her loss, Ms. Abrams refused to concede, claiming that Kemp had unfairly manipulated the election in his favor via calculated methods of voter suppression. In the wake of the election, she converted her frustration into direct steps for change, founding Fair Fight Action and launching a legal battle against Georgia’s Board of Elections. For Ms. Abrams and other liberal politicians in Georgia, the 2018 gubernatorial election was proof that the Democratic National Committee had to rethink its usual strategies in the state: rather than solely attempting to sway moderate white voters, they advised that Democrats instead switch their focus to registering disengaged voters of color and combating voter suppression.
"With a diverse, growing population and rapidly changing electorate, Georgia is not a future opportunity for Democrats; it is a necessity right now," Ms. Abrams wrote in a 2019 document containing data and trends on Democratic voters in the state. "Georgia is every bit as competitive as perennial battleground states. With one of the youngest and the most African American electorate of any competitive state, Georgia has demographic advantages that don't exist in other states."
In the 2020 presidential election, Ms. Abrams’ strategy in Georgia clearly worked, proving that Democrats significantly benefit when they make registering and protecting voters of color a priority. Building off of the momentum from their recent victory in Georgia, Ms. Abrams and fellow voting rights advocates continue to fight to ensure that America’s most marginalized voices can use their ballots as weapons for change.