MARIETTA, GEORGIA — On a humid Saturday afternoon in the Atlanta suburbs, the Cobb County branch of the NAACP held an early celebration of Juneteeth, the day commemorating the end of slavery. Gospel choirs sang, black families picnicked, and civil rights Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) mingled with his supporters. Then Democratic congressional candidate Jon Ossoff took the stage.
“Juneteenth is a celebration of emancipation and it’s a celebration of freedom,” he told black voters. “And one of those freedoms if your right to vote.” The 30-year-old political newcomer added that whether or not they plan to vote for him, it’s crucial that they vote.
In order to flip the sixth congressional district blue for the first time in more than four decades, Ossoff is relying on voters who do not typically participate in non-presidential elections. Many of those voters are people of color.
While nonwhite voters make up 30 percent of the district, they made up just 17 percent of the electorate during the April primary, according to New Georgia Project, a local voting rights organization.
The early voting numbers in the run-off suggest Ossoff’s extensive ground game is already showing results — the composition of the early vote electorate is younger and more diverse than it was in April. For Ossoff to pull off a win, the New Georgia Project says, the minority turnout needs to be higher than it was in April.
“Georgia is going to become the first state in the deep south to be majority people of color,” Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project, told ThinkProgress. “It’ll be the first state in the deep south with a white minority. When you think about places like the sixth congressional district, they are changing at the same pace that the state demographics are changing. What does that mean?”
Envisioning the new Georgia
The New Georgia Project was created to engage the growing, diverse population of that state. Since the beginning of the special election, the group has been doing outreach to people who they call “the new American majority.”
Ufot said the group’s strategy is to speak to minority voters about issues that matter to them, like health care, public education, voting rights, and being able to provide a check on the power of the current administration in Washington.
“We’ve been knocking on about 1,500 doors a day, focusing on voters of color,” Ufot said. “We’re making sure people understand the issues. It’s not Karen Handel and Jon Ossoff on the ballot… It’s the future of Georgia politics and black people and Latinos and Asian Americans as a swing vote.”
They also work to break down barriers that are more likely to keep minorities from the polls, like Georgia’s voter ID law. New Georgia Project works with a group called Spread the Vote that provides free IDs to people who may not have one.
Canvassers are also connecting voters with resources that will give them free Uber rides to the polls on Tuesday.
“All the research shows that this race is neck-and-neck and there are all of these institutional barriers to black people, people of color, and young folks participating that we are just trying to do everything we can to combat,” Ufot said.
Armed with pamphlets and door hangings, 18-year-old Kaelin Miller and 20-year-old Christopher Juring knocked on doors Sunday in a neighborhood of Marietta, Georgia targeted by the New Georgia Project. The two students drove down from Pennsylvania to volunteer with the group.
When asked on Sunday, Ossoff wouldn’t say specifically what Tuesday’s results would mean for future swing districts in the south or other parts of the country with changing demographics.
“The success that the campaign has had building a coalition that is focused so intensely on local concerns — despite the temptation to wade into the national circus — perhaps there is some lesson there about what voters really care about,” he told reporters Sunday.
But that hasn’t stopped the national media and politicians from both sides from claiming the race will be a harbinger of what may come in 2018 — especially if the turnout is more diverse than Georgia has seen before.
Approach from the right
Ufot said the New Georgia Project is targeted voters who in the past have been left out of traditional campaigning.
“The communities that we are focused on, people are telling us that they’ve never gotten a door knock,” she said. “Communities of color are being ignored and not being prioritized by the candidates’ campaigns.”
The same strategy is being used by the right and Republican Karen Handel’s campaign. Darryl Wilson, chair of the sixth district Republican Party and a former vice president with the local NAACP, said his side is also reaching out to people who may not typically participate in off-year elections.
“Everybody needs to vote,” he told ThinkProgress. “The thing we need to do is inform the voters… Karen Handel is the voice of experience.”
And black district resident Leo Smith, the chair of the Cobb County GOP, told ThinkProgress that Handel’s campaign is doing a better job reaching out to communities of color.
“Any time that any person involved in politics reaches out to people who are marginalized, people who are not getting good representation, I support it,” he said. “But the most important thing is not just reaching out to them during a campaign. It’s what you do with them when nobody is voting, and I’m not real familiar with Jon Ossoff’s work in the community.”