02 stacey abrams
Washington CNN  — 

One thing 2020 clarified was the alchemy of turning protests into votes.

The November election wasn’t merely a rebuke of President Donald Trump and the party he’s fashioned in his antidemocratic image. For many of the record 81.2 million people who wanted broad change and voted for Joe Biden, the election was also a vote against state-sanctioned cruelty during a year marked by uprisings against anti-Black police violence.

In May, following the killing of George Floyd under the knee of Derek Chauvin, people poured into the streets of Minneapolis to denounce the brutality. The anger was atmospheric: Around the country – the world – others marched in solidarity, and they continued to do so even after the media stopped their wall-to-wall coverage.

“I think that Black voters saw our votes as a form of protest,” Alicia Garza, the co-creator of #BlackLivesMatter and the principal at the Black Futures Lab and the Black to the Future Action Fund, told CNN last month. “Black voters saw a direct connection between protesting in the streets and protesting at the polls.”

Kamala Harris – the first female, first Black and first South Asian vice president-elect – also will be entering the White House in January.

The California senator herself vied for the top of the Democratic ticket during a thrilling primary season that, at least initially, stood out for the unprecedented diversity of the candidates. Black, Latino, Asian, female, gay: There was a mix in the field.

While Harris bowed out of the primary race late last year, there was collective joy when Biden selected her as his running mate in August. The promise of representation and diversity that Harris embodies continues to fuel conversations about Biden’s Cabinet picks.

But 2020 snapped something else into focus, too: the power of taking a long-view approach to organizing.

For years, grassroots activists had devoted their attention to energizing voters, specifically voters of color, who lean Democratic, are less active in elections and suffer more from voter-roll purges, shuttered polling sites and other Republican efforts to suppress the franchise.

In 2020, maybe nowhere were the fruits of organizing more visible than in Georgia.

The Peach State illustrated that the work of empowering people of color at the polls, both in Georgia and beyond, is as necessary as ever.

Finding a breakthrough

Before President-elect Biden put Georgia in the Democratic column in November, the Democratic presidential nominee hadn’t won the state since Bill Clinton secured its electoral votes in 1992. This trend made Biden’s victory all the more remarkable.

Remarkable – but not random.

“What Democrats in Georgia saw a decade ago was the opportunity for a breakthrough, the opportunity to win statewide offices again with a coalition different than the Democratic coalition of the 20th century,” explained Andra Gillespie, a political scientist at Emory University.

This vision was inspired by Georgia’s sizable Black population and the state’s shifting demographics, including an increase in Asian American and Latino populations and an increase in liberal White Americans in and around metro areas. Some say that these potential voters from Democratic-leaning groups contribute to the so-called New South.

But potential, or latent, voters aren’t the same as actual voters.

“There’s a lag in terms of voter registration and voter turnout among communities of color,” Gillespie said. “Some of that relates to the lingering history of disenfranchisement and distrust. Some of that is because of the lingering effects of structural inequalities. The cost incurred from voting is more acute in communities where people do shift work or don’t have access to bus transportation.”

Significant, too, is the issue of communication. People of color report being contacted less by candidates, parties and nonpartisan political organizations.

“When you don’t remind people to vote, they don’t,” Gillespie said.

Volunteers Grace Pai and Syed Hussain go door to door to inform AAPI voters about Georgia's January runoff elections.

None of the above has to stay that way, though. Ask Stacey Abrams.

In 2013, the voting rights activist co-founded the nonpartisan New Georgia Project, which soon registered some 69,000 new voters, particularly new voters from communities of color, which are often the targets of voter suppression.

“We are currently seeing issues like precinct closures and reductions to early voting periods, which disproportionately affect communities of color,” the organization’s website says. “Other issues affecting our communities have ranged from Georgia’s discriminatory ‘exact match’ voter registration processing system that prevented thousands from making the rolls, to voter purges which knock millions off the voting rolls every year, criminal charges against those who participate in voter registration activities (and) unsafe and insecure voting machines.”

But the New Georgia Project didn’t just register these new voters. It also engaged them, made them active, knowing that registration and mobilization are two different activities.

After her ultrathin loss to Republican Brian Kemp in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race, Abrams founded Fair Fight Action. The group likewise aimed its arrows at voter suppression, not only educating voters but also encouraging them to draw up plans for casting their ballots.

When Biden flipped the Peach State in November, it was thanks in no small part to a multiracial network that had spent years bringing in those who had been left outside the political process and tend to break Democratic.

“So many deserve credit for 10 yrs to new Georgia,” Abrams tweeted last month as the dust began to settle from the election, name-checking the New Georgia Project, Black Voters Matter (which in 2018 launched bus tours in the South to animate voters), Asian Americans Advancing Justice and GALEO (which works with Latino leaders). “Let’s shout out those who’ve been in the trenches and deserve the plaudits for change.”

Beyond Georgia

It’s an obvious question: Is it possible for activists to replicate elsewhere what happened in Georgia? But the answer is a bit more complicated.

Crucially, Georgia’s diversity is unique. At 32%, Georgia has the highest share of Black eligible voters among the nine battleground states, according to the Pew Research Center. (Between 2008 and 2018, this figure had ballooned by about five percentage points, the largest such increase among the battleground states.) Georgia also has growing shares of Asian American and Latino eligible voters and more White Americans willing to vote for Democrats.

Still, despite its demographic distinction, Georgia this year offered some broad takeaways.

Maybe most importantly, the Peach State made abundantly clear that the fight for voting rights isn’t a relic of the 20th century. It can be easy, in some ways, to seal that battle in the past – in figures such as John Lewis, the mid-century civil rights leader who helped pave the path to a new Georgia and passed in July. After all, moves to intimidate and disenfranchise people of color are no longer so open and straightforward.

But quieter voter suppression – gerrymandering, chaotic polling places, voter ID laws – thrives not only in Georgia but throughout the South. And this is to say nothing of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision that essentially defanged the Voting Rights Act by freeing states with histories of disenfranchisement from having to gain federal approval, or “preclearance,” before changing their election laws.

“Voter suppression is no longer billy clubs & Jim Crow. It’s closed polling sites + 6 hr waits w/o pay. COVID is no excuse,” Abrams tweeted in June. “Who needs to vote in person? The disabled. The homeless or displaced. Voters w/language barriers. Folks who didn’t get their ballots in time. Americans.”

In-the-trenches organizing might not be especially eye-catching, but that doesn’t make it inconsequential.

“The people who reached out to Black voters this cycle – and every cycle before – are Black organizers,” Garza said in November. “When we look at what’s happening in Georgia, as well as in states across the South and Southwest, we see that Black organizers prioritized making sure that our communities were powerful in the process, given everything at stake.”

The same could be said of other groups – recall Abrams’ November tweet – that were focused on involving their respective communities in the election.

Black Lives Matter Plaza is seen near St. John's Episcopal Church in Washington.

Whether the Biden administration will listen to various constituencies on policy and ideology is an open question. But at the very least, Biden has a reputation for listening, for possessing empathy.

“I think folks are gonna see a material difference between how we’re prioritizing communities and small businesses and addressing the day-to-day issues, whether it’s extending benefits or continuing to provide rent support,” Julie Rodríguez, Biden’s newly named director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs, said last month. “And that’s something this administration hasn’t done.”

Really, you don’t have to look too hard to detect just how abiding the threat to voting rights is. Ever since it became obvious that the next presidential inauguration wouldn’t be for him, Trump, buoyed by his most pious supplicants, has repeated the utterly baseless claim that the election was fraudulent, that Democratic victories in areas with high Black populations – Atlanta, yes, but also Philadelphia, Detroit, Milwaukee and Pittsburgh – shouldn’t count.

“My mission has been very clear since I was 17, and that is expanding access to the right to vote for those who are entitled to vote in our country,” Abrams told CNN’s Jake Tapper in December, also noting that getting the Rev. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff elected in the upcoming runoff elections – which will determine Senate control – is a vital step toward fixing a broken system. “What Donald Trump is arguing is that he only wants to count the votes that he likes. He wants to restrict access to the right to vote and restrict who gets to be heard in our country.”

Days later, speaking to supporters at a drive-in rally in Atlanta, Biden echoed Abrams’ sentiments.

“Thank you for standing strong to make sure your voices were heard and your votes were counted – and counted and counted again. I’m starting to feel like I won Georgia three times,” the President-elect said, archly, referring to the state’s multiple tallies. “Georgia wasn’t going to be bullied. Georgia wasn’t going to be silenced. Georgia certainly wasn’t going to stand by and let Donald Trump or the state of Texas or anyone else come in here and toss out your votes.”

Put it this way: The struggle for voting rights isn’t a one-time endeavor, over and done with more than half a century ago. The struggle rages on here and now.