In the November general election, Georgia made headlines as the state that went from red to blue, earning a statewide win for Joe Biden by just under 12,000 votes. But as Biden prepares for his transition to the White House, all eyes are once again on Georgia. On Jan. 5, two run-off races in the state will determine whether Democrats or Republican will hold majority in the U.S. Senate. Democrats Jon Ossoff and Reverend Raphael Warnock are challenging incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, and the race looks tight.
After an exhausting outreach effort ahead of the Nov. 3 election, grassroots organizers and national political organizations have teamed up to once again get people out to the polls. But the strategies being employed this time around are different: No longer is the emphasis on flipping swing voters, but rather on holding deep, personal conversations in communities of color, both on their doorsteps and over the phone.
After the general election, Jade Brooks and her colleagues at SONG Power, a new 501©4 group born out of the LGBTQ social justice organization Southerners on New Ground, were drained. With their friends at Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights (GLAHR) and national Latino rights group Mijente, they’d knocked on more than 150,000 doors across Georgia over the summer and fall to get out the vote for Biden.
But after Biden squeaked out a victory in Georgia, while Democrats nationwide failed to produce a “blue wave,” it soon became clear the possibility of flipping the Senate would fall to Georgians.
“We’re tired, we’re scrappy, this is kind of our first rodeo this year,” Brooks, a regional organizing lead with SONG Power, told In These Times. “But we knew there were going to be so many national groups coming into Georgia, so much money falling from the sky, what could we really do? We brought it to our members in Georgia, and through a series of conversations and calls, our members felt very strongly that we couldn’t sit the fight out.”
There’s a lot at stake. Biden’s ability to implement his agenda — from pushing through nominations, including potentially to the Supreme Court, to passing policies such as further Covid relief and more expansive healthcare — will depend heavily on whether he has a Democratic Senate to work with. If either Ossoff or Warnock lose to their Republican opponents, Mitch McConnell will retain control over the Senate, and he has already indicated his intention to block Biden and the Democrats at every turn.
Early voting has already begun in Georgia, and polls show the races running neck-and-neck. A Dec. 22 FiveThirtyEight poll shows Ossoff holding a 0.4% lead over Perdue and Warnock holding a 0.9% lead over Loeffler.
With the future of the Senate in Georgia’s hands, there has been no shortage of efforts to turn out Democratic voters — both locally and nationally. GLAHR and Mijente set the ambitious goal of knocking on approximately 290,000 Latinos’ doors across the state ahead of the runoffs. The national youth-led climate mobilization group Sunrise Movement holds phonebanks five days a week to galvanize young Georgia voters.
Particular emphasis is being placed on turning out Black voters. The grassroots group Black Voters Matter is driving a bus around the state, meeting voters face-to-face, handing out free meals and hosting concerts.
“With this latest bus tour, we’re sending a strong message across the state of Georgia: Black voters made history on Election Day, and we can do it again,” said Black Voters Matter cofounder Cliff Albright in a statement. “From the streets of Atlanta to rural communities like Ware County, Black voters in Georgia turned out in record numbers and exercised their voting power. Now, we have another opportunity to make our voices heard, hold our leaders in the Senate accountable, and remind them that we’ve got the power.”
The New Georgia Project, founded by former Georgia congressperson and gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, has thousands of volunteers hitting the pavement to help people of color vote, with plans to reach one million households before the polls close.
Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, believes the Black vote is key to flipping the Senate. “The opportunity to impact the balance of power in the Senate is absolutely driving Georgians to come back out and vote,” she said on the podcast Runoff the Jewels earlier this month. “When we talk about this multiracial, multiethnic, multilingual, multigenerational progressive majority that exists in the deep South, I want people to know that it’s real.”
SONG Power, meanwhile, has teamed up with People’s Action, a national grassroots organization that centers the demands of working-class people of color. Together, they created a robust plan to place thousands of “deep canvassing” calls to rural Georgians ahead of the election, with the goal of listening to their experiences — and inspiring them to hit the polls in support of Ossoff and Warnock.
“There’s so many national groups that are coming in with calls and texts, and frankly, they have more bells and whistles than us,” Brooks said. “So we leaned into partnerships. The phone canvassing we’re doing with People’s Action is really cool because it enables us to have volunteers from all over the country do something meaningful. “
Danny Timpona, People’s Action’s deputy director of distributed organizing, was relieved when the group connected with SONG Power. People’s Action rallies people across the country to campaign and phonebank for races through close collaborations with on-the-ground groups in each state. But despite having member organizations in more than 30 states across the country, Georgia wasn’t one of them.
“That in itself was like ‘oh my gosh, how are we going to do this?’” Timpona recalled. People’s Action began reaching out to progressive organizations led by people of color, for what Timpona said was an intense two-week vetting process.
They were cautious about not wanting to parachute in. “It was an exploratory phase first of all, to see ‘are we needed?’ If we are needed, what provides the best list for folks who are organizing on the ground?” Timpona said.
In the end, SONG Power was one of several organizations People’s Action teamed up with to develop a canvassing plan.
For SONG Power, the help was appreciated, and not only to get them through this next election. The partnership is growing their contact list, enhancing opportunities to mobilize Georgians for future down-ballot races.
“We want to be able to call people after January,” Brooks said. “After some of this national attention moves away from Georgia, we want to make sure they get a call from a locally-rooted group inviting them into the movement long term.”
The collaboration goes beyond just the sharing of contacts and technology. Due to the nature of deep canvassing — where phone calls can require in-depth knowledge of regions, politics and local issues — People’s Action’s volunteers needed proper training. Together with SONG Power, they developed an hour-long training video that teaches callers how to listen, and not just regurgitate facts. Those well-trained volunteers make calls with People’s Action three days a week, while SONG Power runs smaller phonebanks to its existing base.
“We really lean into the fact that facts don’t change people’s minds, emotions and stories and values do,” Timpona explained. “It’s so rare for people to actually feel listened to, and to think that this person on the end of the line actually cares. Our volunteers really take a lot of pride in creating that space and knowing how important this is not just for this election, but for everything we’re navigating during the pandemic.”
In some ways, the pivot to focusing on just one state has made things simpler.
“In the fall we called into a different state each night,” Timpona said. “It was like, Monday is Wisconsin, Tuesday is North Carolina, Wednesday is Pennsylvania, Thursday is Michigan, and Friday is Minnesota. So in one sense it’s a little easier now, because we have more focus. But this is also a new state, new issue.”
With all eyes on Georgia, the scale of operations is enormous. Ahead of the presidential election, People’s Action contacted 47.3 million voters in battleground states and had more than 280,000 in-depth phone conversations.
Ahead of the runoffs, the group plans to call 1 million people in rural Georgia alone.
Now that early voting has started, the strategy has shifted slightly to actively turning out voters.
“There just hasn’t been information about where people can go to vote, where early voting is, should they return ballots in the mail, or should they return it in person,” Timpona said. “We’re really digging in and making sure people have all the answers they’re looking for, and all the information they need.”
On the ground in Georgia, Brooks said SONG Power plans to continue its canvassing efforts until the polls close on election day.
“During the general election there were tons of groups giving rides to the polls,” she said. “We may just offer resources to other groups that are solely focused on that. But we do have this old church bus that’s kind of broken down… maybe we’ll see if we can put that little beast in formation.”
Regardless of the results on Jan. 5, both Timpona and Brooks see this massive outreach effort in Georgia as a way to build future relationships.
“It’s a very strong thread through all the conversations that we’re having that a lot of people don’t feel a strong connection with how the Senate could actually impact their life,” Timpona said. “Whether it’s rent, utilities, climate justice, a job in healthcare – there’s understandably the question ‘what can the government do for me?’
“That’s the great thing about partnering. We know now that we can hand off the people that we talk to to race-building, power-building organizations after the election, so these conversations we’re having are not just to turn out votes for January 5.”