In January, control of the United States Senate came down to two runoff elections, both in the state of Georgia. With the Presidential election concluded, all eyes turned to the Peach state to see what would happen and how many voters would turn out. The runoff resulted in Democrats winning both of the state’s seats to take control of the Senate and, with it, Congress.
It was an election of many firsts: Jon Ossoff became the state’s first Jewish senator (and the youngest member of the 117th Congress at just 33), and Rev. Raphael Warnock became Georgia’s first Black senator. It was the first time in 20 years both Senate seats were won by Democrats, with high turnout from Black voters playing a key role. The latest research shows that Black voter turnout in Georgia increased significantly during the November 2020 elections, with a 25% increase in Black voter registration from 2016, according to the PEW Research Center. And while exact numbers for the runoff election are still being compiled, it appears that the January turnout numbers among Black voters was almost as high as last fall, noted Nate Cohn in the New York Times’ early analysis. “Over all, turnout reached 93 percent of 2020 levels in precincts where Black voters represented at least 80 percent of the electorate,” Cohn writes. “In comparison, turnout fell to 87 percent of general election levels in white working-class precincts.”
Grassroots Work to Get Out the Vote
The high turnout was thanks largely to the organizing efforts of groups like Be Woke.Vote, who have been working for years to ensure that Black voters are able to make their voices heard. The six weeks between the Presidential and the runoff elections seemed an impossibly short timeline for civic engagement, but for organizations like Be Woke.Vote who have been engaging with voters in Georgia for years, they only had to continue their efforts. A supporter of Be Woke.Vote, Robert F. Smith shared a video from the organization on his Instagram account ahead of the runoff with words of encouragement from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.:“Walk together children. Don’t you get weary. Let us march on ballot boxes.”
Fighting Voter Disenfranchisement in Georgia, Then and Now
The high Black voter turnout in this election is even more important because it happened despite some efforts to strip Black people of their right to vote in Georgia and across the South. During the Civil Rights Movement in the ‘60s, activists fought for equal access to the polls, and worked to banish discriminatory measures like literacy tests and poll taxes designed to restrict Black people from voting. Even now, there remain discriminatory barriers for Black voters including voter ID requirements and legal battles against mail-in voting. New voter rights issues have arisen since the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder that invalidated key provisions of the Voting Rights Act. This provision had required federal oversight of voter laws in some counties in the South that historically disenfranchised Black voters, including Georgia.
In 2021, certain counties in Georgia with majority-Black populations are still targeted by efforts to purge voter rolls and eliminate polling locations, policies that increase voter disenfranchisement in the poorest communities of color. Black-led grassroots groups, including Stacey Abrams’ Fair Fight organization, The New Georgia Project, and All Voting is Local-Georgia worked tirelessly to provide resources to fight voter intimidation in the state, including spreading the word on voter rights and registration and countering false or misleading media that spread online.
Smith has been vocal about the need for Black voters to get to the polls and make their voices heard. His support for organizations like Be Woke.Vote signals an important recognition of the power that Black voters can have when they have the same access to voting that white communities do. The influential role that Black voters played in the Senate runoffs have borne out that sentiment.
Learn more about the work of Be Woke.Vote.