ATLANTA – Jon Ossoff might not have known it, but a possible key to victory in his Georgia Senate race came to stop alongside him in a dismal black van.
Mr Ossoff, a 33-year-old former journalist considered one of Democrats’ brightest hopes this year when Georgia could be crucial to the battle for Senate control, arrived at State Farm Arena in Atlanta this month. to vote early. To its left, the van was unloading a group of older black men.
“Voters for the first time!” the driver yelled as two of the men, Richard Sanabria and Tony Lamar Jones, exited.
Mr. Lamar Jones, 42, watched the media circus surrounding Mr. Ossoff and asked, “Who is he?
His question should come as no surprise. More than 100 million eligible Americans of voting age did not vote in 2016, more than the number who voted for either of the presidential candidates. In Georgia, about 60% of eligible voters voted in that year’s presidential race, roughly tied with the national figure of 55%.
As Democrats look to Georgia for possible wins in November – the first step towards a larger goal of rebuilding their path to victory in statewide races across the South – a turnout high will be the goal of the game, and that means persuading non-voters to become voters.
In traditional swing states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, most political observers believe turnout is largely fixed, and campaigns rise and fall depending on their ability to persuade a set of voters. But in the new set of battlefield states in the south, as well as in Arizona in the southwest, the priority is to convert non-voters into voters.
The thinking is this: if the party is able to reshape the electorate with newcomers to the state – including young people, Latinos, and Asian Americans – as well as greater participation from black residents and immigrants, a red state becomes a blue state.
But experts who study non-voting populations and failed democratic campaigns in recent years warn that the job of changing electorates is difficult and complicated. There is no such thing as an inevitable demographic fate, they say.
Nse Ufot, the executive director of the New Georgia Project, a non-partisan group that has sought to attract voters among the state’s new residents, said this could not be done in any meaningful way with “five-minute conversations. that you have on people. porches. “
“It‘s a sustained campaign that requires smart targeting, messaging and research,” she said.
She added, “And when you think about the transactional nature of election campaigns, they prioritize having people who are already voters vote for them.”
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The work of registering new voters has become associated with progressive politics and is often an articulated strategy for Democratic candidates, but groups make a point of targeting individuals regardless of their party identity.
In 2016, non-voters were younger, less educated, less wealthy, and more likely to be non-white than the average American voter, according to an in-depth study by the Pew Research Center. They were also more likely to tilt democratically, Pew found, a sign of how failure to motivate Liberal voters was as much a part of Hillary Clinton’s loss as the swing-persuaded voters who backed President Trump.
Four years later, with Joseph R. Biden Jr. now leading the charge, Democrats say they are taking a two-pronged approach: winning back some voters who backed Mr. Trump in 2016 and motivating non-voters who didn’t. did not participate the last time. (That said, political watchers on both sides of the aisle agree that no matter what Mr. Biden’s and Mr. Trump’s campaigns say, they have focused on persuading voters most likely to come forward, such as older and suburban voters.)
Lauren Groh-Wargo, chief executive of Fair Fight Action, the group that Stacey Abrams started in 2018, said she expected November to be the culmination of a decade of political organizing in Georgia.
According to figures provided by Fair Fight, 800,000 Georgian voters who did not have the right to vote in the previous presidential election are now eligible. Of those new voters, the target of the group’s registration efforts, 49% are people of color and 45% are under the age of 30.
“Joe Biden needs multiple paths to the White House,” Ms. Groh-Wargo said. “Getting a victory in Georgia helps him get a democratic Senate, helps him build a really strong mandate.
For Mr. Lamar Jones, the man who blanked out Mr. Ossoff at early voting in Georgia, his voting journey began with the help of a non-profit group. He said a case manager at Trinity House, a group that works with ex-homeless men, helped him get the proper paperwork and provided transportation to State Farm Arena, the home of the Atlanta Hawks, which has been turned into a polling station.
In an interview after his vote, Mr. Lamar Jones said he had another reason to get involved this year: Mr. Trump.
“I thought my vote would count this time around,” Mr. Lamar Jones said, “and I didn’t want to see him win again.”
According to data from the 100 Million Project, an effort by the Knight Foundation that studied more than 12,000 people across the country who typically don’t vote, his experience is not unique. Non-voters are not united by party affiliation, but they often have a lack of confidence in the electoral process, less engagement with news and information than the typical American voter, and the belief that the process policy is arduous and exclusive, according to the survey.
“I just see it as corrupt and biased on both sides,” said Cory Aksteter, a 26-year-old dock supervisor at a Minnesota trucking company who backed Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont in 2016 but refrained from speaking. vote.
Mr Aksteter, who took part in the inquiry, said he was torn at the prospect of participating in this year’s election because if he finds Mr Trump beyond bounds, he won’t support not the two-party system.
“I think I could go ahead and vote this year to get Trump removed from office,” he said. “I think he’s a bit more obnoxious than Biden. But personally, I expect a total reform of our government.
Evette Alexander, who helped oversee the Knight Foundation study, said the political will to accept the electoral population as fixed has major repercussions for American democracy. This ensures that the communities with the greatest influence over political choices are whiter, more educated and less representative of the country, she said.
She added that there was a disconnect between the issues that preoccupy non-voters most and those that most presidential campaigns prioritize.
“A lot of what you hear about party platforms is really sort of focused on the concerns of older Americans,” Ms. Alexander said. “There is a bit of a unique message for baby boomers.”
Republicans scoff at the efforts of groups like the New Georgia Project, sometimes claiming without evidence that the group’s registration efforts are attempts at voter fraud. But even in Georgia, Mr. Trump’s will to win the state hinges on maximizing the participation of conservative voters in rural and white communities. This includes registering new voters and finding people who were absent in 2016.
In Macon, Georgia, 90 minutes south of Atlanta, Mr. Trump held a rally this month in hopes of keeping the historically Republican state in the red column. There, speakers nodded at Georgia’s changing demographics, but said they remained convinced she would support Mr Trump.
Brian Robinson, a Republican consultant in Georgia who has worked with some of the party’s top candidates, said he believed there was a down-sampling of Mr. Trump’s supporters.
“There is a Trump effect: the people who vote for Trump will not say they are going to do it,” Robinson said. “Republicans are much more likely not to participate in polls.”
He added: “But I’m not saying it’s not competitive. A wave election might get there, but I’ll believe it when I see it.
On the Democratic side, Senate candidates like Mr. Ossoff and Rev. Dr. Raphael G. Warnock are taking a page from the playbook of Ms. Abrams, the Democratic candidate for Georgia’s governor in 2018, who has targeted new voters in the rural and suburban areas of the state in its race against Governor Brian Kemp.
Terrence Clark, a spokesperson for Mr. Warnock’s campaign, highlighted one such group: voters in the United States of America and the Pacific Islands in counties like Gwinnett and Cobb, near ‘Atlanta. It is the fastest growing demographic group in Georgia.
“It’s not just about keeping white women or suburban voters in the column,” Mr. Clark said. “It’s also about finding, where to turn the dial to further expand the electorate? And you can do it with AAPI voters, Latino voters, and New Americans.
Mr. Ossoff, in an interview during his early voting visit to the Atlanta sports arena, said, “Georgia is getting younger and more diverse by the hour. And the political infrastructure that has been invested here over the past decade is paying off. “
But as always in Georgia, and throughout an American South with a long history of voter suppression, translating a rising demographic tide into a multiracial political coalition has its hurdles. Just ask Mr. Sanabria, one of the potential voters who arrived with the Trinity House group, who left without voting.
“There is so much paperwork that you have to go through,” Mr. Sanabria said. “Even when the mail is slow, the simplest things can get difficult.”
When asked if he thought he would get his ID card back in time to vote, he shrugged.
“Who knows?” he said.