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Vote Your Voice: In Georgia, grantee organizations fuel record registration and turnout

Voting early is vital to Navy veteran Calvin Mills. He arrived at the Cobb County Board of Elections in Marietta at 7:05 a.m. on Oct. 12, the first day of advance voting in Georgia.

Nine hours later, he placed his peach-shaped “I’m a Georgia voter” sticker on his sweater and triumphantly headed to his car. “[Voting early] is something I’ve always done,” he said. “I try to get it out of the way. This is an important election to me.”

Despite the long wait times and absentee ballot delays, a record number of Georgians turned out for the June primary. About 1.1 million voters cast their ballots by mail – making up nearly half of all votes tallied.

On the first day of early voting for the general election, a record 126,876 people cast ballots, the Georgia Secretary of State’s office told WSB-TV.

Officials say this year’s historic turnout drove the long lines that greeted Mills and other voters. But the lines remind many of 2018, when the Georgia governor’s race drew national attention to voter suppression tactics. Candidate Stacey Abrams and her supporters questioned what they saw as efforts by her opponent, Brian Kemp, to suppress the vote. Kemp retained his post as Georgia secretary of state throughout the campaign and oversaw what the Brennan Center for Justice found were some of the most aggressive voter purges in the country.  

Abrams emerged from the race as a national voting rights leader. Her story is featured in a new documentary, “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” that examines voter suppression laws and practices that have swept across America since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted a key provision of the Voting Rights Act in 2013.

This year, allegations of voter suppression have come from both sides of the political aisle in an election cycle marked by concerns for safety and access due to the COVID-19 crisis.

To ensure equitable access to the ballot box in Georgia and throughout the Deep South, the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) is investing up to $30 million from its endowment in nonpartisan, nonprofit voter outreach. The aim is to increase voter registration and participation among people of color over several election cycles.

Vote Your Voice, a partnership with the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta, is empowering communities of color to help fight the new wave of laws and practices standing in the way of voters. In Georgia, such tactics take many forms, and the 11 organizations awarded grants in the state – groups often ignored by traditional funders – have a record of promoting grassroots voter registration, education and mobilization.

Across the South, a total of 40 Vote Your Voice grantees are engaging millions of voters to exercise their basic right to vote and ensure that they are able to elect, and hold accountable, candidates who represent their values.

“This initiative represents a longer-term investment that SPLC is making in the communities we serve,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for SPLC’s voting rights team. “The historic numbers of those who’ve requested absentee ballots and those who have already voted early are evidence that people are committed to systemic and long-term change. The mobilization and turnout of voters won’t end with this election.”

A total of $10 million has been distributed in the first two rounds of grants: $2,460,000 in Georgia; $2,910,000 million in Florida; $505,000 in Alabama; $1,210,000 in Louisiana; $1,205,000 in Mississippi; $500,000 for a project focused on Alabama and Georgia; and $1,210,000 for multistate projects.

Georgia’s voting challenge in 2020

During the June 9 primary, the SPLC assisted the national, nonpartisan Election Protection coalition in serving Georgia voters. The primary exposed major deficiencies in the absentee and in-person voting processes as thousands of voters reported problems with the state’s new voting machines. On average, voters spent several hours in line throughout the metro Atlanta area. The primary was postponed twice, and state officials endured national ridicule for their management of the election.

“This initiative represents a longer-term investment that SPLC is making in the communities we serve,” said Nancy Abudu, deputy legal director for the SPLC’s voting rights team. “The historic numbers of those who’ve requested absentee ballots and those who have already voted early are evidence that people are committed to systemic and long-term change.” Here, people wait in line in Atlanta on October 12, the first day of early voting for the general election. Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

The increased demand for absentee ballots skyrocketed because of the pandemic, but Georgia was hampered by a lack of administrative and financial support, leaving the state’s most populated counties with a backlog of requests.

The pandemic has also exacerbated Georgia’s persistent poll worker shortage. The SPLC’s voting rights team says there appears to be a steep learning curve to operate the new voting machines.

In the lead-up to the November general election, grantee organizations report a number of troubling suppression tactics – even as voters appear to be highly motivated.

“Georgia leads the nation in its increase in voter registration this year,” said Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project. “In the midst of a pandemic and protest, Georgians are turning out to vote in historic numbers. At the same time that we are witnessing the state deploy the full voter suppression toolkit, we are seeing more Georgians actively engage in the democratic process.”

For organizations working with Latinx voters, suppression comes in many forms. Naturalized citizens are being required to appear in person or mail their voter registration application rather than file it online.

“The refusal from jurisdictions to provide information in Spanish on their websites as well as absentee ballots and [ballot] requests in Spanish also creates problems,” said Gilda “Gigi” Pedraza, executive director of the Latino Community Fund, Inc.

More elusive forms of voter disenfranchisement are also taking place. 

“One of the most subtle ways the vote is suppressed is by getting voters to believe that their vote will not be counted and harming their trust in the system,” said Umer Rupani, executive director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project. Voter suppression, he said, “makes you believe not just that your voice doesn’t matter, but that you have no voice.”

The Arc Georgia is addressing several concerns of voters with physical limitations, including the reduced number of polling places in predominantly Black neighborhoods, accessible voting machines and signature matching.

The inadequate number of polling locations in historically Black neighborhoods “is a particularly serious issue in the disability community because of the lack of accessible public transportation in most rural communities,” said Stacey Ramirez, executive director of The Arc Georgia. “Many people with disabilities either do not own a vehicle due to poverty and/or do not drive. They are often cut off from being able to vote in person when neighborhood polling locations are closed.”

People with no or low vision also have difficulty voting independently now that new voting machines require sight to review a ballot before it is recorded. The Georgia Secretary of State’s office has not procured screen readers to address this issue, Ramirez said.

Nationally, returning citizens are facing increased barriers to the ballot box, and Georgia residents who have completed prison sentences are no different.

Felony disenfranchisement, a discriminatory tactic rooted in the Jim Crow era, prevented more than 265,000 Georgians from voting in 2018, according to Reform Georgia. Fifty-eight percent of those disenfranchised were Black, even though Black people make up only 32 percent of the state’s population. The state also has the highest probation rate in the nation.

Returning citizens who have served their sentence, paid any fines owed and completed probation or parole are eligible to vote. Those unsure about their status can request a Certificate of Sentence Completion from their probation office, said John Paul Taylor, the SPLC’s rights restoration field director.

Despite the challenges faced by voters, SPLC grantee organizations are reporting progress.

“Young Latinx citizens are engaged and fired up to participate,” said Pedraza. “So many young and new voters are excited about supporting their families and communities with their vote.”

Here is a closer look at the 11 organizations in Georgia receiving grants from the SPLC.

The Arc of Georgia – Grant amount: $30,000

The Arc of Georgia promotes and protects the human rights of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities by supporting their full inclusion and participation.

The Arc will focus on disability households of color in southern Georgia counties with reported high racial disparities among active voters. Organizers will make personal contact with voters, send text alerts to an estimated 300,000 people; record and post a series of nonpartisan digital forums, use social media posts about absentee voting and post short videos through a partnership with All Voting is Local.

“The Black American disability community was already fighting voter suppression and accessible voting machines and processes that support the civil right to vote independently,” said Executive Director Stacey Ramirez. “Now, due to COVID-19, there is added confusion on how to vote safely and in a way that ensures the Black American disability vote is heard.”

Equality Foundation of Georgia – Grant amount: $170,000

This organization focuses on fairness, safety and opportunity for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and allied communities. It is reaching out to 400,000 people of color across the state to encourage them to vote in conjunction with the America Votes absentee ballot program.

The Vote Your Voice grant will fund a final mailing encouraging those people to vote absentee.

“Typically, our outreach and organizing centers around festivals and site-based voter registration drives,” said state outreach manager Shannon Clawson. “COVID-19 turned this model completely on its head. Since March, we have conducted our voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts completely online. We have filled requests for almost 1,500 absentee applications, texted over 125,000 individuals, and host weekly virtual volunteer events.

“COVID-19 has forced us to think creatively and approach election work in innovative ways that we will continue to utilize once the pandemic has passed.”

GALEO Latino Community Development Fund – Grant Amount: $200,000

GALEO works to increase civic engagement and leadership in the Latinx/Hispanic community statewide.

The group’s focus is on 70,000 eligible but unregistered Latinx people in Gwinnett, Cobb, Hall, Whitfield and DeKalb counties, plus 250,000 Latinx registered voters. The group will reach 22,000 voters by phone and send 200,000 texts and 50,000 mailers. The Vote Your Voice grant will allow the group to increase its social media presence, send mailers to all 250,000 registered Latinx households with information about voting and plans for translation assistance at the polls, and reach those households by phone.

“We have seen a tremendous amount of engagement from within the Latinx community in wanting information about voting,” said Executive Director Jerry Gonzalez. “We think it will be a record-breaking year of Latinx voter turnout.”

For bilingual (English/Spanish) assistance in Georgia, call 1-888-54GALEO (1-888-544-2536).

Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda – Grant amount: $75,000

Founded in 1988 by the late Rev. Joseph Lowery, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda is one of the oldest civic engagement organizations in the state. With offices in more than 50 counties, its mission is to increase citizen participation in public policy.

The group is sending trained poll monitors to early voting locations and Election Day polling places to ensure access, said Executive Director Helen Butler.

“Hopefully, as in the primary, voters will be determined to vote, remain in line if there are lines and vote despite having problems with the confusion around voting by mail,” said Butler. “The Vote Your Voice grant is helping us build that election protection infrastructure in 88 counties wherein we will have poll monitors to report problems, assist voters and resolve problems.”

Georgia Muslim Voter Project – Grant amount: $110,000

GMVP’s goal is to increase voter turnout through education, registration drives and grassroots organizing.

The group is partnering with the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), building on CAIR’s civil rights work with Muslim Americans.

The group plans to focus on Gwinnett, Fulton, Cobb, DeKalb, Athens-Clarke, Chatham, Macon-Bibb, Columbia and Richmond counties to reach as many potential voters as possible several times. Organizers will make 60,000 unique contacts using direct mail, text and phone banking and door hangers.

“Like everyone else, we had to very quickly switch to digital organizing. We also quickly understood how our mission was that much more important because of the pandemic and its effect on minority communities,” said Executive Director Umer Rupani. The Vote Your Voice grant will allow the GMVP to expand and deepen its impact for Georgia Muslims, connecting with those who feel forgotten and underrepresented.

Georgia Shift – Grant amount: $150,000

Georgia Shift gives young people in historically marginalized communities a seat at the table of democracy. The group uses education, electoral action and civic media programs to reach young voters of color in Richmond, Lowndes, Burke, Columbia, Peach, Emanuel, Fulton and DeKalb counties. Georgia Shift connects with 90,000 undergraduate students on at least 10 campuses, including historically black colleges and universities and minority-serving institutions. The organization engages 50,000 young people with weekly livestream and online video series.

According to the group’s website, it will provide voter guides, help for voting by mail, student poll worker recruitment and technical assistance in bringing early voting locations to campus.

Latino Community Fund, Inc. – Grant amount: $75,000

Latino Community Fund works to be a catalyst for investment and collaborative work with and within the Latinx community, supporting nonprofits with advocacy, program development, technical assistance and grants.

The group seeks to reach Latinx voters including millennials, Gen Z mothers with limited English-speaking skills, immigrants and Puerto Rican communities in DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett, Hall, Houston, Whitfield, Clarke, Tift and Rockdale counties.

The Vote Your Voice grant will expand the group’s work in Tifton and Rockdale counties, as well as provide training, additional resources and time to Latino Community Fund educators in south Georgia and metro Atlanta.

“Our vote supports a system of principles, values and ideas that then become policies and laws that impact all voters, nonvoters, citizens, non-citizens, old, young, men, women, etc.,” said Executive Director Gilda “Gigi” Pedraza. “Politicians legislate for the people that elect them. If we don’t participate, we are invisible to them.”

NAACP Atlanta Branch – Grant amount: $100,000

The group’s mission is to secure political, educational, social and economic equality.

The Atlanta branch of the NAACP seeks to increase Black voter turnout to over 70 percent (from 54 percent in 2018) focusing on 19 Georgia counties where the majority of Black registered voters live.

The branch will work with other NAACP branches, churches, grassroots community groups and fraternal organizations on voter outreach and mobilization, including candidate forums, social media, text messaging and voter transport.

“The Vote Your Voice grant has assisted us in collaborating with the 19 counties in Georgia that contain 77 percent of Black registered voters, covering costs that many could not otherwise afford and establishing a single phone banking campaign that includes all targeted counties,” said Richard Rose, president of the NAACP Atlanta.

The New Georgia Project – Grant amount: $750,000

The New Georgia Project is a nonpartisan effort to register and civically engage the state’s voters, with a focus on Black, Latinx, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, young people, single women and the LGBTQ community. The organization’s chief goal in 2020 is to mobilize low-propensity voters, voters of color and young voters. NGP works with communities across the state, from rural counties to cities.

The group is using the Vote Your Voice grant to increase its reach to engage these voters. Additionally, the group will communicate with them about effective advocacy actions, as well as the state’s registration and political processes.

“Yes, there are long lines at the polls. Yes, there are machines that are not working at the time that a polling precinct should be open. And, yes, Georgia’s secretary of state has not made it easier for Georgians to vote,” said Executive Director Nse Ufot. “But it is electrifying to see that people are being persistent in exercising their right to vote. As we all know, our vote is our power!”

ProGeorgia – Grant amount: $750,000

ProGeorgia is a diverse collaborative that champions an equitable and inclusive democracy, for and with traditionally underrepresented communities across the state. The organization began in 2011 when a group of 12 nonprofits united.

Two-thirds of ProGeorgia’s table partner organizations are led by people of color and just over half are led by women of color.

“ProGeorgia is committed to achieving racial, economic and gender equity in Georgia through our civic engagement work,” said Executive Director Tamieka Atkins. “As Southern leaders, our partners work across a broad spectrum of issues to resolve historic disparities created by white supremacy, colorism, gender-bias and classism.”

ProGeorgia is using the Vote Your Voice grant to reach hundreds of thousands of people of color through a Census-integrated get-out-the-vote campaign; increase the number of women of color who turn out to vote; and complete one experiment to improve engagement.

United Way of Coastal Georgia – Grant amount: $50,000

This organization works to create communities where all people and families can thrive.

In partnership with community groups, United Way supports low-income communities, communities of color, and youth and young adults in Glynn and McIntosh counties.

The group plans to reach 1,400 voters by assisting homeless people with voter registration, phone banking, social media campaigns, voter education forums and youth outreach with the College of Coastal Georgia. With the Vote Your Voice grant, the organization has been able to provide critical funding to established, local efforts.

“We have supported local groups that are trusted voices within our community – particularly the Black community – to enhance their outreach efforts,” said Janelle Harvey, community impact manager. Public transportation is a huge barrier, and COVID-19 has made it more difficult to provide transportation to polling sites, Harvey said.

Illustration by Mary Kate McDevitt