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Voting rights organizers push for federal protections ahead of Georgia governor's race

A man receives an "I'm a Georgia Voter" sticker after casting a ballot in Georgia's primary election on June 9, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)
A man receives an "I'm a Georgia Voter" sticker after casting a ballot in Georgia's primary election on June 9, 2020, in Atlanta, Georgia. (Elijah Nouvelage/Getty Images)

Democrat Stacey Abrams announced earlier this month a second run for governor of Georgia.

She lost by a narrow margin back in 2018 after a massive grassroots campaign to mobilize Black and Brown voters. That groundwork is credited with helping Joe Biden win Georgia in the 2020 presidential election.

But as political winds change, will those grassroots efforts benefit Abrams this time around?

The New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan group Abrams created, has registered nearly 600,000 Georgians to vote in the 2020 election. The organization’s goal is to “build a more active, engaged citizenry” 365 days a year within communities of color in the state — not just during election season, CEO Nsé Ufot says.

Right now, Ufot says her biggest concern is voter suppression.

The voting laws in Georgia that were passed last March, among other restrictions, limit the use of ballot drop boxes and add photo ID requirements for absentee voting. Republicans say this is to ensure the integrity of elections and to prevent fraud — but Ufot says their “lies” about illegitimate 2020 election results propagate misinformation and complicate the work of voting rights advocates.

This year alone, 49 states have introduced more than 400 anti-voting bills “in service of … continuing that lie,” she says.

The New Georgia Project — a nonpartisan organization — is more eager than ever to engage folks ahead of what is expected to become a heated 2022 gubernatorial race, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has some competition in his own party.

Former President Donald Trump withdrew his support for Kemp after the governor insisted that there was no voter fraud in Georgia last year. Former Georgia Sen. David Perdue, a Trump loyalist, will run against Kemp in the GOP primary.

Ufot says they are looking to reach everyone, no matter their political affiliation, but especially those who “do not see themselves as part of our democracy.”

“That is young people of all races, new Americans, new Georgians of all races and ethnicities and ideologically conservatives as well,” she says. “Again, we want to have a more reflective Georgia of all of our communities.”

If elected, Abrams would become America’s first Black female governor. If she loses, it will have been twice in her career, which could potentially be a big blow politically. Ufot — a self-described feminist immigrant organizer from the deep South — says she’s “used to losing or having things stolen from me.”

But that doesn’t mean Ufot doesn’t keep doing the work. That’s how she’s viewing Abrams’ efforts.

Abrams’ legacy, no matter the outcome of next year’s elections, is evident by the nationwide fight for voting rights, she says.

At the federal level, Democrats worry the Voting Rights Act could be close to death’s door. LaTosha Brown, a Georgian and co-founder of Black Voters Matter, says that despite best efforts to mobilize voters of color, activists in Georgia can’t out-organize what’s happening with Republican efforts to restrict voting rights.

On MSNBC this week, Brown put it bluntly: “I think it’s quite ironic that the president is hosting a democracy summit with world leaders, yet right in his own backyard, what we’re seeing is efforts to actually undermine and marginalize Black voters and Brown voters all across this country. So, if we want to talk about democracy, as my grandmother used to say, charity begins at home.”

Biden has said protecting voting rights would be a key issue for him, but Brown doesn’t believe he’s holding up to his promise.

“Currently, as a Black voter in the state of Georgia, I have less voter protection now than I did last year,” she says.

Black voters — who have historically supported Biden and Democrats — are “getting punished” for coming out in droves in the 2020 elections, she says. Biden and the Democrats haven’t used their power to ensure voting protections through legislation, she says, nor have they made voting rights a core issue.

“I am incredibly disappointed,” Brown says. “The fact that we’re at the end of 2021 and we still don’t have federal legislation.”

Since 2018, Democrats in Georgia have captured two congressional seats, two Senate seats and three state Senate seats. Brown says the biggest obstacle for 2022 is not whether there are enough Democratic and left-leaning Republican voters in the state to land Abrams a victory, but rather the “cheating” going on behind the scenes.

There are three voting suppression tools Brown lays out — restricting access to the ballot, fostering a culture of fear and weaponizing the administrative process.

SB202 in Georgia restricted ballot access by giving lesser days for absentee ballot voting, for example. The law also restricts physical mobilization to the polls, she says, instilling fear among the voting rights groups who do that work during election season.

And in terms of the administrative system, she says “we’re already seeing the Republicans in Georgia that are seeking to take over election boards in various counties and to remove people who have been doing this work for a number of years, who have integrity, to remove them from the voting rolls and to give themselves the power that if they don’t like the outcome, they can actually overturn the results of an election.”

Brown’s call to action — in Georgia and beyond — involves addressing these tools of suppression head-on at every single level of government. It requires continuing the fight for federal legislation, she says, and removing people from power, no matter where they fall on the political spectrum, “who are literally OK with suppressing the vote of others.”

Voting rights needs to become so prominent “that Americans are talking about every single day,” she says, “to make sure that democracy is not unraveled.”


Ashley Locke produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtSerena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.