Andrew Lu moved to Georgia in 2017. By 2018, he was canvassing for Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign.
The 35-year-old, who was working in Oakland, California, before the move, said he was a registered Republican until his early 20s. But even when he had a change of heart politically, he says he usually didn’t vote.
That changed when he came to the East Coast.
“Since I’m no longer in California, I can’t hide behind, ‘Oh, it’s a blue state,’” Lu, who grew up in Los Angeles, said. “Now I have to put my words into action.”
Lu is among the hundreds of thousands of Georgia transplants who experts say have played a part in helping shift the state’s political demographics – a shift that made the once Red state a political battleground in 2020. Georgia voted for a Democratic president for the first time in nearly 30 years – but the win was narrow, with President-elect Joe Biden taking the lead with fewer than 13,000 votes.
Now another crucial race – the US Senate runoffs – is just days away, since none of the Senate candidates received a majority of the vote in November.
“New residents have absolutely played a role, not only in our shifting demographics, but also in what’s possible with our politics, and soon with policy,” says Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan voter registration group.
“This influx of people coming into our state from not only across the country but across the globe, has only sort of underscored Georgia as this (cosmopolitan) melting pot, gathering place, in the Deep South.”
Georgia ranked as the top fifth state to welcome the most newcomers in 2019, according to a US Census Bureau report. More than 50,000 people came from abroad, while thousands relocated from other states, including Florida, Texas, California and New York.
It’s worth pointing out the state’s flip during the Presidential elections is largely credited to Black women and their years-long efforts to register voters and get them to the polls – efforts backed by community leaders like Abrams and Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, among others.
Newcomers have been just one part of the equation – and experts say it’s hard to tell just how big of an influence they’ve had in flipping Georgia.
What experts do know however, is that many new residents are more likely to vote blue.
“We know that the strongest Republican voters are people who’ve been in Georgia more than 20 years,” said Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens. “Individuals who have been in Georgia less time are more likely to be Democratic.”
Who the newcomers are
While it’s hard to track down who the newcomers are, Bullock says Georgia’s voter registration rolls offer clues.
“We know that a million new voters registered since 2016,” Bullock said, adding that the number doesn’t necessarily mean all of those new voters were newcomers, but that number likely also includes new residents.
About two-thirds of those voters were minorities, he said. Half of them were under 35, Bullock added.
“We know that minority group voters are more Democratic than Republican and that young voters are more likely to be Democratic than Republican,” he said. “So kind of triangulating on all that we can say, ‘Okay, the folks who are moving here are bringing not only their furniture with them, but also their partisanship. And a lot of them are bringing Democratic leanings.”
People of color, residents ages 18 to 29 and unmarried women made up a significant part of the state’s newcomers over the past decade, according to the New Georgia Project.
The majority of newcomers are Black, Ufot, of the New Georgia Project, said.
Many are Black Americans, moving back in a reversal of the Great Migration – a period roughly between the 1920s and 1970s, where many Black people left the South, fleeing racial violence and seeking better job opportunities.
“It is why Black folks in Chicago trace their roots to Mississippi, Black folks in New York and New Jersey trace their roots to the Carolinas and to Georgia,” Ufot said. “Now those people are … moving back South or their children are, their descendants are.”
Others are African and Caribbean immigrants, who recently became US citizens, she said.
“But to be clear, it is not just Black voters,” Ufot said. “We’re also talking about a significant influx of AAPI (Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders) and Latinx Georgians.”
With the changes that are taking place, Bullock says the Republican leadership in the state is “beginning to awaken to the challenges that they’re going to confront.”
“That with the younger voters, these more diverse ethnically voters, the warning signs are out there that if Republicans don’t come up with broader and more encompassing policies, yeah, they may still control the legislature right now … but their long-term positions are becoming perilous.”
“There’s going to be some serious re-thinking in the leadership of the GOP in terms of how do they want to present themselves.”
Why they’re coming
In his Southern politics course, Bullock said he no longer divides the region between the Deep South and the Rim South (the peripheral states) for his students, like he used to.
“Now, what I tell my students is that that no longer really captures things in terms of partisanship,” he said. “What we talk about now in my class is the growth South versus the stagnant South.”
Georgia falls in the former category – one of several states across the Eastern seaboard, plus Texas – that are growing and attracting more investment.
“The stagnant parts of the South, where people are either leaving or (have) very slow growth, in those areas – like Alabama, Arkansas, for example – the Republican party is still growing, as opposed to the Democratic party beginning to stage a comeback,” Bullock said.
Much of Georgia’s influx is concentrated in and around the metro Atlanta area – the state’s liberal hub. A 2019 US Census Bureau report ranked the area as the fourth fastest growing in the nation between 2010 and 2018 – with more than 660,000 new residents. It’s where Biden’s lead surged in November as votes were tabulated.
Transplants are coming for all kinds of reasons. Many, like Lu, move because of job opportunities. But it’s not just work: the state also offers an attractive housing market and a more affordable lifestyle, dissimilar to other populous areas of the country where the cost of living has skyrocketed.
Diana Gu, a 29-year-old originally from Florida, has settled into Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward area in Fulton County – a heavily blue part of the state – after hopping around different parts of the country for months at a time to conduct botanical and wildlife research.
“I wanted to find a full-time job somewhere that was affordable,” she said. “Somewhere that was more diverse, and somewhere that it felt new, but also homey, I guess. And Atlanta fit all those things.”
The booming populations are making a difference.
“If you look to see where Democrats are beginning to stage a comeback, well, Virginia is a blue state already,” Bullock said. “Florida has voted Democrat for president … three of the last seven elections. North Carolina has a Democratic governor.”
What they care most about
Newcomers’ priorities, Ufot said, are often no different than what many long-time residents want as well: safe communities, clear air and water, affordable healthcare, access to quality education and reliable transportation.
“I think A, they want the things that everyone else wants for themselves and their families and B, they’re no longer … interested in any sort of platitudes or excuses about the way things are down here.”
“And so it’s contributed to a push for accountability from our elected officials.”
Gu said she began getting more involved in elections after the state’s “jarring” 2018 gubernatorial race – which was riddled with allegations of voter suppression after Democratic candidate Abrams lost to Gov. Brian Kemp by about 55,000 votes.
“It was kind of a wake-up call,” Gu said.
She estimates that she waited in line about three or four hours to vote back then. She voted again during the Presidential election, and has already cast her ballot for the January senate runoffs.
The past year’s harrowing experiences – everything from the summer’s racial unrest to the devastating Covd-19 pandemic – are still fresh in her mind and issues she cares deeply about.
“The first thing on my mind would be police brutality,” she said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget what this past year has felt and looked like in terms of going to protests and just what I saw out there.”
Young voters like Gu are energized by similar issues, said Helen Butler, the executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a non-profit that works to register and mobilize voters across the state.
Butler, who’s been involved in voter registration efforts for more than two decades, looks at voters based on age demographics, ethnic demographics and gender. She said that the 18 to 35-year-old group “this time around played a tremendous role in terms of turnout.”
These populations now understand how public policy immediately impacts their lives, she said, in everything from criminal justice, to health care, to schooling. And they have been fueled by the raging pandemic and the demonstrations against police killings, she added.
“So I think that really galvanized them to be engaged and really helped change the landscape,” she said. “Were there new people that were involved? Yes, because I know they’re new citizens, especially because we do voter registration and naturalization ceremonies, and you see that they’re so enthused about being able to exercise their right to vote for the first time.”
For Lu, the stakes are high.
In some cases, his concerns are personal: During his time in Atlanta, he said he grew more passionate about issues like LGBTQ rights, immigration and racial discrimination. He saw first-hand how his wife’s wholesale business was affected by the President’s trade wars. He says he often finds himself enraged reading news about limits placed on certain minorities, who “basically share a similar story to how my parents got here.”
And a former public school student himself, he’s also concerned about having a strong schooling system, something he said he wasn’t confident about during the Trump administration.
“It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” he said. “It does feel like no matter where you go, there’s an important issue, and the stakes are always high.”
It’s that sense of urgency, he said, that drives him to the polls.