Georgia’s election this year was supposed to be a turnout game, just like 2018 and 2020. You wouldn’t know it from last night’s results.
I ran into Nsé Ufot this weekend at a low-key campaign event at the Georgia Beer Garden downtown in Atlanta and hung out with her for a while in the courtyard, as she sat contemplating her fate. Sen. Jon Ossoff, D-Ga., was chilling nearby with Charlie Bailey — Democrats’ candidate for lieutenant governor — and the folks in town from “The Daily Show.”
Ufot is almost as famous in Georgia for running the New Georgia Project, the voter engagement organization founded by Stacey Abrams. But she’d been fired as NGP’s chief executive officer six weeks earlier for reasons that are still unclear and she declined to elaborate on. A handful of other staffers have also been fired since.
Breakups are always hard, but when things aren’t working, something has to give. Ufot and groups like NGP would be the first to see if something isn’t working in Abrams’s election logic. When that happens, relationships can get tense.
The new head of the New Georgia Project did not get back to me. New Georgia Project is nominally nonpartisan, but any group focused on getting historically marginalized communities is going to have a greater impact on results for Democrats in Georgia. The margin of Abrams’s Tuesday loss to Republican Gov. Brian Kemp — by 7.6 percentage points or 300,000 votes — might be measured in what New Georgia Project and similar groups across the state could and could not accomplish running up to Election Day.
Georgia’s election this year was supposed to be a turnout game, just like 2018 and 2020. There’s no point in trying to change anyone’s mind anymore. There are no swing voters. It’s just a matter of getting the right people to the polls, as many as you can, any way you can. Or so we hear.
Maybe that’s still true. But you wouldn’t know it from the results last night.
In 2018, 3.94 million people voted in Georgia’s gubernatorial election. As of last night, almost exactly the same number of people voted — 3.95 million — despite a population increase of about 300,000 residents and a 500,000 increase in registered voters. Voter turnout actually fell by about 4.5 percent.
I could tell two stories about these numbers. The first is that Senate Bill 202, Georgia’s “reforms” to voting laws passed after the historic 2020 election here, depressed turnout more than the Democratic turnout machine could counteract. The second is that Democratic voters were, frankly, a little burned out by the constant thrum of political noise, and that Republicans learned the turnout lesson in 2020. There’s evidence for both cases.
Politicians crowed about early voting numbers. Over the course of three weeks, 2.5 million voters cast ballots in person in Georgia, about as many as 2020. Lines were largely nonexistent. But that masked a different problem; mail-in ballots had fallen way off from 2020.
About 5 million people voted in Georgia in 2020, and 1.3 million voted by mail. Georgia’s 2020 turnout was the highest in modern Georgia history, spurred by Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s decision to mail every voter a ballot request form during the pandemic.
This year, the number of early voters in person remained about the same as in 2020. But mail-in ballots fell back to the 2018 midterm baseline after legislation prohibited the secretary of state from mailing voters an unsolicited request form. At the same time, the rejection rate for absentee ballot requests decreased since 2018, meaning that far fewer people had requested ballots.
Ufot has been screaming about this for weeks. The new rules make drop boxes for absentee ballots much less useful for second- and third-shift workers by reducing the number of boxes in large Atlanta metropolitan area counties, requiring the boxes to be inside buildings and only open during business hours. “All of that constructed hurdles to participation in Atlanta that led to a 1 million drop,” she said.
Of the roughly 300,000 new voters who have moved to Georgia since 2018, about half are nonwhite, and most settled in Atlanta’s metro area. Strong in-person early voting was a response to the absentee ballot changes, but it didn’t reflect an actual increase in participation, she added.
Organizations like the New Georgia Project and others have been working with half — or less than half — of what they had in 2020. The individual campaigns have been able to draw massive hauls from donors across America, but the grassroots organizations that reflect the local turnout machine saw comparably little of it. Donations instead went into nonstop feckless political advertising on television and social media, fattening powerful D.C.-based consultants while leaving local organizations to starve.
Consider that counties in northeast Georgia — Marjorie Taylor Greene country — outperformed their 2018 turnout by about 5 to 6 percent. Greene beat her Democratic challenger Marcus Flowers 66-34 in the most expensive House race in America this cycle. Greene’s idiocy over the last two years is like a tank character in an online war game taunting opponents into wasting their attacks on her. (Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., may be demonstrating the limits of that strategy.)
Notice that I haven’t mentioned a single thing about policy yet. That’s because I don’t think it actually mattered much.
Georgia’s politics have become completely tribal. Almost no one was voting for Herschel Walker in the Senate race because they believed strongly in his ability to lead or his political acumen, or even because of his political arguments, such as they were. They were voting for a Republican, the more Republican the better. For all of Sen. Raphael Warnock’s comparative appeal as a moral and civic leader, Democrats by and large would have voted for anyone running on the Democratic line of the ballot, as long as they were certain that person would have fidelity to the cause.
As a practical matter, Georgia’s abortion policy was on the ballot last night. If she had been elected governor, Abrams would surely have vetoed additional restrictions on abortion access — or contraception, or the criminal prosecution of doctors performing abortions — proposed by an increasingly radical Republican-led state legislature. Abrams could have logrolled Georgia politicians into some kind of Medicaid expansion, given the closure of hospitals across the state. Tax policy. Marijuana legalization. Gun law.
Georgia faces serious legislative questions over the next four years. The retirement of state Rep. David Ralston, a Republican, as speaker of Georgia’s House — noted for his ability to mollify legislative Trumpists in the name of doing business — complicates things. So does the accession of Burt Jones as lieutenant governor. Jones is an election denialist who is being investigated for his alleged role in Donald Trump’s election interference.
Seeing this, some small number of Georgia voters were plainly persuadable. About 200,000 fewer people voted for Herschel Walker than Brian Kemp: roughly 1 in 10 Republican voters. Raphael Warnock earned about 132,000 more votes than Stacey Abrams. That implies that about 5 percent of the electorate actually cared enough about one candidate over another to alter their voting habits.
A few people wept as Abrams conceded at the Hyatt in Atlanta last night. They were young. Most people in that room had been there before and knew better.
I know that sounds callous. I know that politics in Georgia — and really, everywhere in America — have become an existential struggle. I know Democrats who looked at real estate listings in other states when Kemp won here in 2018. I know Republicans in Georgia who were looking up ammo prices in 2020.
But we’re all about to do this again, damn it. It doesn’t end. It never ends. We cannot escape.
As long as Georgia is split down the middle, we will be preyed upon by consultants as locusts in the grain.