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From the poll line: How Black voters in Georgia could make the difference this election

Donald Trump’s racism and handling of the pandemic could drive turnout in a state that hasn’t gone Democratic since 1992, Richard Hall reports

Thursday 29 October 2020 16:48 GMT
Yvonne Young and her two daughters outside of a Kamala Harris rally in Atlanta, Georgia
Yvonne Young and her two daughters outside of a Kamala Harris rally in Atlanta, Georgia (Richard Hall/The Independent )

A long line of voters stretches out from the main election office and into the car park here in Marietta, just north of Atlanta. At its current length, it will take around two hours for the people at the back to cast their ballots.

Georgia is used to long lines at polling stations; it’s a problem that disproportionately affects Black voters in the state. But the people waiting in line today are voting early – the election is 10 days away. Something about this year is different.  

“When I got here there was already a line all the way over there,” says Alisha Glaspie, a 27-year-old nurse from nearby Kennesaw, pointing to the far end of the car park. “But I was so glad to see so many people coming out. That’s what you gotta do to make a change.”

There’s a reason that Glaspie, who is hoping for a new resident in the White House, to be optimistic. For the first time in decades, the deep red state of Georgia is an electoral battleground. A Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won here since Bill Clinton in 1992, but polls currently show a toss-up between Joe Biden and Donald Trump.

The shift has been a long time coming. Georgia has become increasingly diverse over the past decade, fuelled by people moving from across the country to work in growing tech and healthcare industries. It has made the state less white, and more educated.

Today, Georgia has one of the youngest and the most African American electorates of any competitive state. It has one of the highest proportion of eligible Black voters of any state — 32 per cent — and the highest of all the battleground states. And while Black voters are by no means a monolith,  they represent a reliable Democratic voting bloc in the state.

How Black voters in Georgia could be key to turning the red state blue

Democrats are looking to the gubernatorial campaign of Stacey Abrams, who lost narrowly to Republican Brian Kemp, for inspiration. Raw turnout for her among voters of colour reached levels not seen outside of presidential elections.

Part of that surge might have been down to changing demographics, but for Glaspie and many other Black voters, Trump’s victory was a huge motivation then and now.

“Last election, nobody expected Trump to win. Now everybody is so afraid he’s gonna win again they are coming out in their masses,” she says.

Her experience matches the national picture for Black turnout in 2016. The turnout rate declined for the first time in 20 years in a presidential election, from a record high of 66.6 per cent for Barack Obama’s last election in 2012 to 59.6 per cent in 2016, according to Pew Research. In Georgia, despite the number of eligible Black voters increasing, their share of the electorate declined by more than 2 per cent between the elections. 

Things have changed since 2016, however, according to Glaspie. 

“I can’t talk for the whole Black community, but the Black people that I know, we’re talking about the state of our country and the changes we’d like to have made – we’re on social media, we’re talking to our family and our coworkers about early voting and really making it important,” she says. 

Working in healthcare, she says has seen the devastating impact of the Trump administration’s handling of the coronavirus. But his racism is also a powerful motivator.

“When you have a president who refuses to denounce white supremacists, that’s supposed to be my president? I’m supposed to trust him to have my best interests and my family’s interests at heart? That’s scary. That’s just something I’m not going to stand by idly and accept,” she says.

People line up to cast their ballots at the Atlanta Hawks’ State Farm Arena in Atlanta, Georgia, 12 October 2020 (Chris Aluka Berry/Reuters)

Predicting turnout is notoriously difficult for pollsters, but there are indications that this year could see a record number of Black voters in Georgia. Tallies show they represent 31 per cent of early voters in the state so far, according to The New York Times – an increase from 27.8 per cent in 2016 and from 30.9 per cent in Stacey Abrams’s gubernatorial run in 2018.

In the aftermath of her historic campaign, Ms Abrams’s campaign released a comprehensive action plan for how Democrats could build on her success. That plan urged future campaigns to not take Black voters for granted and to focus on Black voter turnout.

“The common refrain from previous Georgia Democratic campaigns, local Democratic leaders and national operatives held that ‘lots of Black people already vote’ and thus the ceiling for Black participation had already been reached,” the debrief, titled “The Abrams Playbook”, reads.

“Despite steady increases in Black population, previous Georgia Democratic campaigns allowed themselves to believe that there was no way to meaningfully improve upon those numbers. We did not subscribe to such a belief,” it adds.

But improving turnout depends on much more than building enthusiasm, as Ms Abrams found out during her own campaign. That race was marred by allegations of voter suppression by her opponent. Mr Kemp was simultaneously the Republican candidate for governor and the person in charge of elections and voter registration in the state, and his office was accused of purging Black voters from electoral rolls.

An Associated Press investigation in the month before the election found that more than 50,000 voter registration applicants, most of which were from Black voters, had been left pending by Mr Kemp’s office.

Long lines at polling stations plagued that race and subsequent elections – a failure that was seen as deliberate in the eyes of Democrats. Since 2013, Georgia’s voting population has grown by more than two million people, but the number of polling stations has decreased by 10 per cent. In part because of where that growth has happened, researchers have found that non-white voters are far more likely to have to stand in line to cast their ballot, especially in more diverse areas north of Atlanta like Marietta.  

It took Denisha Thomas around two hours to get through the line here in Marietta with her friend Tameika Robinson. The pair proudly display their “I secured my vote” stickers (Georgia’s sticker features a peach, the state’s official fruit).  

For them, this year’s election is about one thing – or one person – above all else.

“Last time no one but me and my brother voted in my family,” says Thomas. “They thought if you have a reality TV star running for president he’s not gonna win. So they just kinda brushed it off like a joke a little bit. Then he won, and everyone was crying. It was so emotional.”

The same cannot be said this year, she adds. “A lot of us voted this year. My family has a thread and when anyone has a [voting] sticker we’re sharing it.”

Her reasons for voting are similar to Glaspie’s. “[Trump’s] presidency has magnified racism and violence and separation. There’s no unity. And he didn’t handle the pandemic correctly. It could have been avoided. But that’s what happens when you vote in a reality TV star.”

Denisha Thomas and Tameika Robinson after voting early in Marietta, Georgia (Richard Hall/The Independent )

That enthusiasm is apparent not just in the presidential election, but in races up and down the ballots in Georgia. Two senate seats are up for grabs this year, both of which are held by Republicans and both of which are neck-and-neck.

Democrat Jon Ossoff, a 33-year-old former journalist running against 70-year-old staunch Trump ally David Perdue, said Georgia is currently at a “tipping point”.  

“The youth and diversity and dynamism of Georgia – and the clear, undeniable failure of Senator Perdue and President Trump – has made this the top Senate battleground in the country,” he told the Wall Street Journal this month.

The Biden campaign is taking Georgia seriously, too. Mr Biden is due to visit the state on Tuesday – a stop here this late in the campaign is usually a sign that things are close – and his running mate Kamala Harris, the first African American woman to be nominated for vice president by a major party, visited here on Friday.

Due to social distancing, the crowd was limited to a small number of supporters who stayed in their cars. But peering through the fence are Yvonne Young, 40, and her two daughters.

“This is probably the most important election of my lifetime, certainly for my girls. I want them to see this,” she says.  

“It was important four years ago to vote, it’s important now. The difference is we’ve had four years of our country being run underground. This is a stand against Trump – his racism, his rhetoric, and how he’s brought our country to our knees,” she adds.

Her daughter, 21-year-old Mariah Young, just voted in her first presidential election. She is among the many energised as much by Trump’s practical failures as his rhetoric.

“I’m a Black woman in America and I shouldn’t be afraid to walk down the street without feeling like I’m gonna get lynched. It’s been an awful administration and it’s time to get him out,” she says.  

“Younger people are starting to really see the issues. There is nobody that this coronavirus pandemic hasn’t affected. The issue might have been a bit more subdued in the past so it was easier to look past and say, oh the older people have it. Now it’s jarring and it’s in your face.”

Anthony Lagroon (right) and fellow members of the Cobb Alpha fraternity, on hand to help voters in Marietta, Georgia (Richard Hall/The Independent )

There is another reason for the apparent spike in enthusiasm this year: an explosion in get-out-the-vote initiatives across the state.

The NAACP, America’s largest civil rights organisation, launched a drive earlier this year in Georgia and five other battleground states in order to boost Black voter turnout. The aim was to mobilise “low frequency” Black voters – those who were registered but rarely voted.

Across town, at the State Farm Arena in downtown Atlanta, the state president of Georgia’s NAACP,  Reverend James Woodall, is out on the street with a team of volunteers and a stark message for voters: badges and signs and the T-shirt he wears are all emblazoned with the words “Vote to live”.

“Every election is important to Black voters as it relates to economic rights, as it relates to voting rights, as it relates to environmental injustice, we’re fighting for our lives in every election,” says Rev Woodall, as music from the NAACP stalls encouraging people to vote blares behind him.

But he adds that the scale of the crises faced by the Black community in 2020 has given this election an added importance.

“There is a greater sense of urgency to respond to the pressing challenges of our day, to respond to issues about police brutality, issues of economic instability, about health inequities, that’s why people are feeling the need to show up,” he says.  

“We’re trying to convey that in a public health crisis, where everybody is literally on their toes trying to make sure they don’t catch the coronavirus, and in a day and age where civil unrest [is happening] all over the nation, we’re saying at the polls that we want and demand a kind of system that works for everybody.”

Back at the polling station in Marietta, a group of men from the Cobb Alpha fraternity are also volunteering to help get voters to the polls. They are here to hand out water and help voters standing in line.  

“One of the mottos of our fraternity is ‘a voteless people is a hopeless people,’” says Anthony Lagroon, a member of the local chapter, who is accompanied by two undergraduate fraternity members.

“We’re here passing out water and encouraging them to stay in line. We don’t want them to lose their right to vote.”

Mr Lagroon has noticed the change Trump has brought, too. And he’s trying to see the positive.

“I believe that Donald Trump is going to go down as the most influential president of all time,” he says, not because his policies positively impacted Black voters, but rather the reaction he provoked.

“He’s taught us to learn more about what’s going on in the government. We have more African Americans running for office and being politically active.”

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