What Georgia’s Historic Voter Turnout Reveals About Enacting Change on the Local Level
With the inauguration of Joe Biden on January 20th, we have much to rejoice in—whether it be bidding farewell to a chaotic and inadequate administration, or welcoming into office the first female, Black, and South Asian Vice President. And although the Biden administration is not the cure-all of the United States, it will hopefully provide us a step in the right direction.
Reflecting on this change in administration, it would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the power of local organizers and grassroots mobilization in helping turn the tide of American politics. We have observed Georgia especially closely with its Senate runoff election, and this election cycle has proven historic for the state as it broke a decades-old voter turnout record. Prior to the 2020 presidential election, the state maintained a 40-year voter turnout record of 63 percent (set in 2008). This year, turnout jumped to more than 67 percent of eligible voters.
This begs the question: what led to such profound change in the Peach State?
A variety of factors played into making this election so historic for Georgians, such as the growth of its Democratic-leaning suburbs or the state’s implementation of automatic voter registration in 2016. However, the most prominent contribution is the extraordinary work of voting rights advocates who had been preparing for this change for years. This group is composed of Black female elected officials—among them the lauded Stacey Abrams—and community organizers who approached the shortcomings of Democrats in the South from a different angle.
After Georgia’s controversial gubernatorial election in 2018, which would have made Abrams the first Black woman to be elected governor anywhere in the United States had she won, Abrams decided to present a new strategy to Democrats: they could win more races by being more inclusive of disengaged voters of color rather than focusing on persuading undecided, moderate, usually white voters. That same year, Abrams founded Fair Fight, an organization that promotes fair elections, encourages voter participation, and educates voters about their rights. The organization was able to register an estimated 800,000 new voters in Georgia, nearly half of whom are people of color, by the presidential election.
Abrams was not the sole influence in registering new voters and helping nudge swing states to be blue, and though she has done incredible work, we must also continue to remind ourselves that she was not the only one participating in local organization. Doing so will trap us in a perspective analogous to that through which we see the Civil Rights Movement, namely our idolization of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks at the cost of oversimplifying their true ideologies and obscuring the tireless work of other grassroots activists.
In fact, many people in key cities like Atlanta, Philadelphia, or Pittsburgh credit Black women in their communities for encouraging people to exercise their right to vote. Women of color have played an increasingly large role in elections, whether through record-breaking participation in them or registering and educating family, friends, and local community members. Their years-long work is so notable that it, alongside Georgia’s flip from red to blue, has people questioning whether the South has started straying from Republicans.
What the work of Abrams and grassroots organizers in voter participation reveals to us is the indisputable significance of enacting change on the local level. It is tempting to make sweeping statements about what we should do, but more often than not, doing so produces empty shells rather than genuine action. In order for us to see real progress, we must build a foundation for it, piece by piece, as people, specifically Black women, have been doing in Georgia for the past few years.
The results of the 2020 presidential election were not guaranteed and continue to be contested to this day, weeks after a white supremacy-fueled insurrection that rocked our nation. But as Amanda Gorman stated in her inaugural poem, “While democracy can be periodically delayed / it can never be permanently defeated.” Now more than ever, we need grassroots organizers to help spur the change that this country needs; if only we look hard enough and offer our support, we will find a Stacey Abrams in every corner of the fight for justice—a fight that is nowhere near its end.