Defying Voter Suppression, Nearly 400,000 First-Time Voters Cast Early Ballots in Georgia

Georgia’s early voting turnout was historic, with more than 2.2 million votes cast before Election Day. Of those, nearly 400,000 were first-time voters.

Photo: Alice Speri for The Intercept

With less than 24 hours to go before Election Day, a couple of dozen volunteers sat in a backroom at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and dialed number after number, reaching some 4,000 voters in one day, as they had done every day for a week.

In that same room, nearly six decades ago, Martin Luther King Jr. co-founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and in that room he had celebrated his last birthday. Today, wearing shirts with the hashtag #BlackVotesMatter, volunteers helped verify voters’ registration status, told them where to go on Tuesday, and checked that they had a way to get there. Some of the people they called had been voting since the days of MLK. Others were first-time voters, and some were new Americans.

“To be in this room … It’s a sacred place,” Stella Nunga, a coordinator at the site, told me while taking a break from the phones.

Nunga, who was born in Cameroon but has lived in the U.S. for 30 years, said the new voters were those most thrilled about voting — and she remembered her own excitement when she cast her first vote as an American citizen, for Bill Clinton in 1992. But most people they reached were tired of this election’s negativity and “glad the end is around the corner,” she added. “Tomorrow it’s over, and whoever is the president, bless his or her heart.”

Still, if exhaustion with this election was a recurring theme among the voters she spoke to, it wasn’t keeping them away from the polls. “We’re doing something right,” said Nunga. “We may not see the enthusiasm, but people are voting.”

In fact, Georgia’s early voting turnout was historic — with more than 2.2 million votes cast before Election Day. Of those, nearly 400,000 were first-time voters — a quickly diversifying electorate that many here expect will soon change the political face of a traditionally conservative state.

Some 1.5 million new residents moved to Georgia over the last decade — 80 percent of them people of color, many Hispanic and Asian immigrants, but a significant number African-Americans moving back South as part of a reverse “great migration.” These demographics have Georgia on track to become the first state in the Deep South to be “majority people of color,” said Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project. “Georgia looks very different now.”

Ufot, who was born in Nigeria but moved to Atlanta as a child, spoke from a messy downtown office carrying the signs of long nights of organizing. On the wall, a framed poster showed Nelson Mandela wearing an ANC shirt that read “Get an ID. Register. Vote.”

“The whole registration process is designed to keep people from participating — it’s America’s legacy of oppression.”

The New Georgia Project started canvassing the state’s residents in 2013 to talk about the Affordable Care Act, and soon realized that there were 800,000 African-Americans, Latinos, and Asian-Americans in the state who were eligible but not registered to vote. In a state where for most top-of-the-ticket races the victory margin is fewer than 200,000 votes, that gap in voter registration was potentially transformative. “The whole registration process is designed to keep people from participating — it’s America’s legacy of oppression,” said Ufot. “Organization is all that’s ever changed policies, so that’s what we’re trying to do.”

In three years, the group has registered more than 200,000 voters — 123,000 this year alone.

Comparing census data with voter registration rolls, its members have focused on those communities of color where voters were less likely to be registered, knocking on door after door, and not simply having people fill out a form but talking to them about the issues they cared about, from Georgia’s $5.15 minimum wage to the lack of access to medical care in rural counties. “We don’t want people to just become registered, we want them to become voters,” Ufot said. “And then from voters, to super voters who vote in every election, municipal elections, school boards, water and sewage management, all of it.”

The group has also built on the political energy of the movement for black lives — despite largely lukewarm feelings about this election among its ranks. “Black voters are much more sophisticated in their analysis than many are giving them credit for,” Ufot argued. “So yeah, grandmas aren’t turning over their piggybanks to give in the same way that they did for Barack Obama, and the world is not in love with the current candidates, but it doesn’t mean that people are not going to get out and vote.”

Last month, at a solidarity protest over the police killing of Keith Lamont Scott in North Carolina, Ufot’s group registered 1,000 voters — “but I don’t believe for a second that voting is a radical political act,” Ufot added. “It is the thing that you do to start.”


Volunteers with the New Georgia Project, in Atlanta, Nov. 7, 2016.

Photo: Alice Speri for The Intercept

Based on the numbers alone — and on the unprecedented turnout of new voters in this year’s election, the effort to register new voters and voters of color in Georgia has been incredibly successful. But it has also met the resistance of state officials and a slew of measures attempting to limit this growing political power.

Georgia was one of the states under federal oversight as part of a Voting Rights Act provision that the Supreme Court struck down in 2013, and since then civil rights groups in the state have been fighting a series of legal battles to keep county officials from illegally purging voters from the rolls and otherwise limiting voting access. Last month, as the ACLU sued to extend voter registration deadlines in parts of the state affected by Hurricane Matthew, Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp publicly criticized the effort, tweeting, “We can’t let left-wing activists disrupt Georgia’s elections.”

That response is quite indicative of how Georgia’s white, conservative political elites have been dealing with the fast transformations sweeping through the state. “A dying donkey kicks hard,” Ufot joked — but it can still do plenty of damage.

In 2014, the New Georgia Project registered 86,000 new voters. But only 46,000 of them made it onto the rolls that year — the rest were rejected over technicalities like the timing of their submission or as little as a hyphen missing from their names on registration forms. In Georgia, a voter’s registration form must exactly match the name on the state’s social security database — excluding dozens of voters whose names were entered incorrectly, usually by the clerks doing data entry. “I had a woman tell me, if my name is wrong in someone’s database it sure wasn’t my fault,” Ufot recalled. “I have been writing my name for 70 years, I know how to write my own name.”

“When you show up on Election Day and they tell you that you’re not on the rolls, we lose those folks and they never vote again.”

In total, Georgia has purged 372,000 voters since 2014, essentially undoing a lot of the work by groups like Ufot’s continue to do. That’s particularly hard on newly naturalized Americans — as many excited to vote for the first time leave the polls demoralized and humiliated when they are prevented from doing so. “When you show up on Election Day and they tell you that you’re not on the rolls, we lose those folks and they never vote again,” Ufot said. “It’s a constant battle. It should not be this difficult to register to vote.”

But even voter suppression efforts, no matter how damaging, can’t stop the seemingly inexorable transformation of the state’s demographics.

“People don’t believe Georgia is changing as fast as it is,” she added. “Then one day you wake up and places like Gwinnett County that used to be all-white are now majority people of color.”


Aisha Yaqoob holds up a voting rights flyer at Dunkin’ Donuts, in Lawrenceville, Georgia, on Nov. 7, 2016.

Photo: Alice Speri for The Intercept

Gwinnett, Georgia’s second most populous county, is a perfect example of the state’s changing complexion and politics, as well as of the resistance of the election apparatus to those transformations.

Through the first week of early voting, there was only one polling site open for a county of nearly 900,000 residents — as opposed to 25 sites in Fulton County, the state’s largest. As voters lined up for hours to cast their ballots early, and backlash intensified over the delays, county officials opened two more sites, and then, last week, 10 more. Even so, voters stood in line for up to three hours at times, and the county, like others in Georgia, shattered all early voting records, doubling its 2008 turnout with more than 166,000 votes cast early.

But Gwinnett, a county long held by Republicans, is not only seeing record political participation, it is also quickly becoming one the most diverse in Georgia, with growing numbers of African-American, Hispanic, and Asian residents.

“As of this election, white voters are no longer in the majority here, and I think that scares them,” Aisha Yaqoob, director of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project, told me. “I think this is the year it might turn Democrat, and that’s a really interesting signal for the state.”

Yaqoob spoke from a Dunkin’ Donuts in Lawrenceville, the county seat, where she was preparing a group of volunteers for a last day of canvassing, handing out “ask me about voting” T-shirts, fliers describing the county’s local races and Georgia’s ballot initiatives in Arabic and English, and “I voted” stickers in several Asian and Middle Eastern languages.

Her group, which focuses on registering Muslim voters but reached out to a variety of immigrant communities, spent months going to the county’s 20 mosques every Friday, as well as stopping people at halal grocery stores. Last September, when most of the usual volunteers were celebrating Eid with their families, Yaqoob got non-Muslim supporters to show up at a religious function, on a Monday morning, where they registered 150 new voters in less than two hours.

Many Muslims in the Atlanta area have lived in the U.S. for years without voting, and several ended up on the state’s “inactive list” — a preliminary step to getting purged off the rolls, Yaqoob noted. But even though the country’s political climate has been hostile towards Muslims for a number of election cycles, many never felt the need to get involved in politics, she said. Until now.

“It’s different, I have this sinking feeling now, and I didn’t have that before,” she said. “More and more I’m getting people who say, even though I don’t like either candidate, we just can’t let this person win, because of all the stuff he’s been saying, and because of potential impact he would have.”

“At the beginning mosques didn’t want to get involved, but as the campaigns progressed they started asking us, can you come do a voter registration here?” she added. And while Trump started talking about his “Muslim ban” long before securing the nomination, it’s not until more recently that many in this community felt they had to take their opposition to the polls. “I think at first people weren’t taking him seriously. After the Khizr Khan thing, my dad texted me and asked me, can you double check that I’m registered to vote?” Yaqoob said. “And I was like, of course you’re registered, I already checked everyone in our family.”

A bus full of Trump supporters started yelling obscenities at them and screaming, “When he gets elected we’re going to deport you.”

In addition to registering voters, volunteers with Yaqoob’s and other immigrant rights groups have been connecting them to rides to go vote, and plan to offer language assistance at the polls and bring popcorn and music to the sites with the longest lines. On Tuesday, trained volunteers will watch the polls as part of a nationwide, nonpartisan monitoring initiative, observing any intimidation or suppression efforts and reporting them through a chain that goes all the way up to the Department of Justice.

Yaqoob herself thought the talk of harassment at the polls was “overblown.” Then last week, at an early polling site in Gwinnett County, a group of volunteers was met by a bus full of Trump supporters who started yelling obscenities at them and screaming “when he gets elected we’re going to deport you.”

On Monday afternoon, groups of volunteers with the Georgia Muslim Voter Project — including some high school students too young to vote themselves — went door knocking through affluent suburbs of Lawrenceville where white residents were far outnumbered by blacks, Latinos, and South Asians. The volunteers used an app to pull up the addresses of registered voters presumed to be Muslim based on their names — and joked that it was a good thing that no such registry existed officially (“yet”).


Members of the Georgia Muslim Voter Project visit residents in Lawrenceville, Georgia, on Nov. 7, 2016.

Photo: Alice Speri for The Intercept

But most of those who opened the doors said they had already voted.

Sameera Omar, a 23-year-old nonprofit director, said the rhetoric of this election was transforming a community that had often withdrawn from political life.

“A lot of our parents come from parts of the word where there isn’t a culture of voting or if there is it’s very corrupt, so for them it’s like, what’s the point?” said Omar, whose family originally came from India, via Kenya. “But I think because of the climate of this election, if you don’t vote you’re almost siding with Trump, you’re allowing your absence to make it happen.”

“And when you think about it, what’s most discouraging is not really Trump, it’s the following he has,” she added. “It’s terrifying that there’s such a large group of people that really genuinely believes that we’re not members of this fabric, that we should be literally kicked out. … I try to remind myself that as hateful as they are, they’re just misinformed, they’re not bad people.”

Omar said she’s equally frustrated with Democrats’ support for wars abroad, inaction on refugee issues, and fixation that Muslims in America should help fight radicalization. “Why am I responsible for this? I’m trying to make this country a better one, and that’s what you should expect us to do,” she said. “I wouldn’t have voted this year if I didn’t have to, in the sense that if Trump won and I didn’t vote, I’d feel responsible.”

Being Muslim through this election year has been “emotionally exhausting,” Omar added. But there has been a silver lining — and that’s the coming together, politically, within her own community and in connection with other communities of color. “My theory is, if all the minorities come together, we’re going to overpower everything,” she said.

While that may not happen by Wednesday, that does seem to be where Georgia — and perhaps the rest of the country after it — are headed. “What we need to do is figure out how to govern and lead in the new Georgia,” said Ufot, of the New Georgia Project. “Don’t put your head in the sand. Don’t dig your heels in and use your power and platform to try to disenfranchise people and further their oppression.”

“You can’t fight the future — it’s coming.”

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