Georgia Volunteering: Did It Help Reverse Systemic Racism?

I have been looking for ways to help reverse systemic racism and I think that volunteer efforts for the Georgia Senate runoff made an impact. My own small role felt important at the time and even more important in retrospect. Tens of thousands of Black people in Georgia either newly registered to vote or regained their legal right to vote over the past few months. This permanently empowers them and gives them influence over the trajectory of our nation. The organizations that hosted my volunteer work are poised to offer similar opportunities in the future. Perhaps there is some hope that a white person like me can help make a difference going forward.

In this blog, I will begin by briefly sharing what it was like to help get out the GA vote. Perhaps you engaged in similar activities, perhaps giving more of your time than I did. Perhaps you were not involved very much and will find inspiration to contribute when the next opportunity comes around. Then, I will dig into the data that quantifies the outcomes. Winning these two senate seats was a big deal. Helping tens of thousands of Black voters find their power was likely more significant as a step in the direction of reversing systemic racism, and this is what excited me the most. 

In the weeks leading up to the Georgia Senate run-off elections, I volunteered by making “ballot cure” phone calls. I took on five two-to-three-hour shifts. The shifts were well organized, occurring in real-time over Zoom, and hosted by Georgia Democrats under the umbrella. Each shift began with a brief orientation to the day’s focus and a review of new information and scripts to guide the day’s calls. There were about 150 of us in each shift, sharing our video feeds as we made our voter phone calls. Watching my peers making their cell phone calls in the muted, collective silence of Gallery View inspired me to keep up. I was part of a meaningful collective and many of my phone calls led to uplifting interactions. Experienced staffers and volunteers were available on chat to answer technical questions. Each shift ended with 15 minutes of live, unmuted sharing, providing a nice, celebratory send-off.

Ballot curing is the process of helping voters repair ballots that have been or are likely to be rejected due to clerical errors. Typical issues include missing or mismatched signatures and addresses that do not correspond with state-government data. In many instances, the address mismatches are triggered by challenges made by the political opposition that force voters to prove their legitimacy. The Democratic Party developed a set of powerful and clear online tools for voters to upload their signatures, photo IDs, and documents, like electric bills, that verify their home address. Phone callers like me were complemented by other volunteers who sent text messages and postcards, and still others who showed up at the voter’s door wearing a mask and keeping distant while helping the voter to cure their ballot.

For months, I have been attending web meetings hosted by the Working Families Party and The Frontline. These are Black-led, progressive organizations that coordinated their fall GA Senate run-off efforts with the Democratic Party while they also pursue their own priorities going forward. I first hooked up with the ballot cure effort through one or both of these groups.

Their meetings are impressive and inspiring. Charismatic, well-organized presenters share impact data, like updates on GA voter outreach, and share other initiatives along with methods for participants like me to get involved. Each meeting includes a grounding or centering activity, where a spiritually-attuned facilitator takes us through a breathing exercise, reads poetry, leads a visualization, or otherwise promotes a sense of calm and well-being. The agenda unfolds with a range of progressive topics, many appealing to me, presented by well-qualified experts. Presenters tend to be Black or Latinx, most are female, and most are under 40 years old (I think). Celebrity presenters have included Stacey Abrams, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts. One event included amazing, highly-produced musical performances by top-tier stars. I tend to agree with about 75% of the positions taken by both of these organizations and am donating both time and money to each. I recommend that you take a look and see if their agendas, overall “vibe,” and participation opportunities are a match for you.

The Working Families Party recently shared compelling numbers from the GA runoff effort. I am a member, so I will use the first person “we” as presented on the slides.

  • We knocked on 232,324 doors and contacted 52,822 people.
  • We identified 67,300 voters in 11 counties.
  • We made 900,000 phone calls.
  • We sent 7.1 million text messages to 1.95 million voters.
  • We logged 13,000 volunteer sessions.

As a person who played an incremental role, I feel delighted and pumped up. I am glad to be part of a successful and enlightened collective effort. The results reported above, coming from one organization, were produced by a subset of the people involved in the Georgia campaigns. I cannot yet find summative numbers on the total human effort, but suffice it to say that it was huge.

This large effort to promote the vote was critical to counter the efforts to suppress the vote. Last year, according to the ACLU of Georgia, 313,243 voters were purged from the voter polls, 63% wrongfully. These purges were based upon challenges to home addresses and the challenges were invalid. This year, a conservative group called True The Vote was challenging 364,000 ballots across all 159 Georgia counties, again based upon address data. They were employing a GA statute that – – hold your breath here – – “allows any registered voter to challenge the eligibility of any other voter within the same county. It’s up to local election boards to determine whether those challenges have merit.” [underline is mine, information from AP, Dec. 19, 2020] Fair Fight, led by Stacy Abrams, the ACLU, the Democratic Party, and other organizations were forced to mobilize in order to counteract this effort. They were largely successful. For instance, Cobb County, one of Georgia’s largest, threw out the challenges. Where these challenges were enforced, each individual voter was required to “cure” their ballots. Now you see why it took thousands of volunteers to help recover these legal votes.

The tides are turning. While I do not yet have information on how many ballots were successfully cured, available information about GA Senate runoff voter drives is very encouraging. 76,000 new GA voters signed up between the November general election and the January runoff election. They are overwhelmingly young, with 56% of them under 35 years old. Some are new Georgia residents; others just turned 18. 21,000 of these new voters are Black. None has a voting record in the state. There are now a record 7.7 million registered voters in Georgia. Given that the general election yielded a 12,000 vote edge for Biden and Harris, the addition of 76,000 new voters is very meaningful.

If you search for “Black voters in the Georgia Senate runoff” you will see a plethora of articles in mainstream media attributing the Democratic victories to Black voters, and young Black voters in particular. The Center for Information on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University (CIRCLE) has produced a GA runoff analysis that validates the power of voter outreach efforts.

Democratic-aligned organizations reached out to young voters, between the ages of 18 and 26, far more than Republican-aligned organizations.

  • 66% of young Black GA voters were contacted on behalf of the Democratic candidates.
  • 19% were reached on behalf of Republican candidates.
  • 50% of young white GA voters were contacted on behalf of the Democratic candidates.
  • 24% were reached on behalf of Republican candidates.

Young voters, between the ages of 18 and 26, and young Black voters, in particular, voted overwhelmingly in favor of the Democratic candidates.

  • 64% of all young voters voted for Warnock and 63% for Ossoff.
  • 91% of young Black voters voted for both Warnock and Ossoff.

More people voting. More Black people voting. More young people voting. And people whose ballots were disallowed in the past are successfully voting now. One Black Senator and one Jewish senator in Georgia. That is systemic change. I am hopeful that this 2020 voter outreach effort, perhaps magnified by technology enhancements resulting from COVID, will make a dent in systemic racism by giving more political power to Black people.

One of my voter phone calls was to a young Black man. I’ll call him Jaylen.

Me: Hello, my name is Arjan and I am a voter protection volunteer with the Democratic Party of Georgia. Is this Jaylen?

Jaylen: Hey, I am at work and I can’t talk.

Me (speaking fast): Sorry. I just wanted you to know that, according to public records, your vote in the November general election was disallowed and you’ll need to make a change in order for your vote in the Senate runoff to count.

Jaylen (speaking under his voice): Really?

Me: Yah. I’m just a volunteer, but public records say this is true. I have information that will help you fix things and make your vote count.

Jaylen: How?

Me: Your best bet is to vote in person, early voting. You have two days left. Early voting in your county ends tomorrow at 5:00 pm. I can help you find the loca. . . (he cuts me off)

Jaylen: I know where to go . . . (voice trails off)

Jaylen (to a co-worker): Again, man. Now it makes sense. I gotta vote tomorrow (mumbles that I cannot hear)

Jaylen’s co-worker: (In the background. I cannot make out the words.)

Jaylen: I totally have to get this done. I am voting tomorrow. Thanks, man. Gotta go. Thanks. Really. (He hangs up.)

We have to reverse systemic racism in order to survive as a nation and political volunteerism is one place where a white person like myself might be able to help. What do you think? A few months ago, I wrote Whiteness: Looking Back to Reshape the Future to document the regrettable racial history and discuss initial steps to build support for systemic, Black empowerment. Take a look at the article to see a few more suggestions. Add your own to the comments section here. I personally plan to stay in touch with the Working Families Party and The Frontline to see how I can help.

One of the reasons that systemic racism persists is that it is difficult to find ways to reverse the process. Let us work together to make progress. Politics. Healthcare. Education. Homeownership. There are many areas where we can have an impact. Let us work together to move forward.

1 thought on “Georgia Volunteering: Did It Help Reverse Systemic Racism?”

  1. Arjan,
    Thank you so much for this thoughtful and informative piece. I am so encouraged by people like you who are so thoughtful about life and care so much about other people. I believe White people can not only help heal our nation of racism but actually play a pivotal role in changing the hearts and minds of other White people. Becoming involved in the struggle and actively combating racism in your midst is what will eventually create institutional change. Yes, the experience in Georgia was amazing. So many of our mutual friends, myself included, wrote postcards and letters. The curing of votes was especially meaningful because it corrects the effort to disenfranchise voters.

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