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Can Black Voters Deliver Democrats A Victory In Georgia Runoffs?

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

And I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Georgia, where canvassers have been knocking on how many doors?

NSE UFOT: We are a couple of minutes away from knocking on our 2 millionth door.

KELLY: In Georgia.

UFOT: In Georgia.

KELLY: In Georgia.

UFOT: In Georgia since the November 5 general election. And so on...

KELLY: Hang on - 2 million doors in Georgia since November 5.

UFOT: Yes.

KELLY: Wow.

UFOT: Right.

KELLY: Nse Ufot - she's CEO of the New Georgia Project. That number - 2 million doors - is tough to fact-check, but no question her army of volunteers has knocked on a lot of doors in the lead-up to today's Senate runoffs. Their mission - educating and registering voters of color here in Georgia and then making sure those voters actually vote.

UFOT: As America's newest swing state, the thing that I've - it's become very clear to me - is that it is the nature of battleground state politics that the elections are determined by who shows up to vote and whose vote gets counted, right? And so we are going to do everything that we can to make sure that the 500,000 people that we've registered to vote show up and vote in this election but also the folks in their communities, communities that people often don't talk to.

KELLY: We caught up with Ufot at a get-out-the-vote rally in the parking lot of the Community Church of God in Macon - Souls to the Polls.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Afternoon, afternoon. Give yourselves a big hand.

(APPLAUSE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Isn't God good?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Yes, he is.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Isn't he really good?

KELLY: The New Georgia Project is officially nonpartisan, although we spotted a lot of Warnock T-shirts for Raphael Warnock, the Black pastor of Martin Luther King Jr.'s old church, Ebenezer Baptist, and one of the two Democrats on the ballot today. Early voting data shows Black Georgians comprised about a third of early voters, which is higher than in November's presidential election. Black voters, in other words, may hold the key to Democrats' hopes in Georgia, which is why get-out-the-vote activists are going for broke.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Before we get into that, make some noise if you voted already.

(SOUNDBITE OF CAR HORNS HONKING)

KELLY: An hour's drive from Macon back towards Atlanta in a giant parking lot outside Lakewood Amphitheater, a drive-in socially distanced get-out-the-vote concert. Everybody stays in their cars, bopping along and, organizers hope, getting fired up to vote. Well, that last one is an uphill challenge, admits Cliff Albright, a co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Georgians have been living in this election cycle so long, with all the TV ads and robocalls and political text messages that suggests...

CLIFF ALBRIGHT: I'm tired of seeing it, and I do this work for a living. So guess what? I've not yet heard somebody who says, you know what? I'm not going to vote because I got too many text messages. Like, I've never heard that, right? Like, people might be irritated. They might say, oh, leave me alone. They might say, oh, I already know. But I've never had somebody so turned off that they say, you know what? I was going to vote, but this last text message took me over the top. And now I'm not going to vote.

KELLY: But could this really mark the moment that Black voters, historically marginalized and disenfranchised, help tip once deep-red Georgia into deep-purple territory? Well, I thought about that comment from Nse Ufot that we heard a moment ago - Georgia as America's newest swing state. Cliff Albright is adamant it's time.

ALBRIGHT: We've been making the argument for a long time that we've got the demographic, that there's a whole community of voters out there that haven't been touched, that feel ignored, that feel like they don't matter. And if we just invest more in them and in the organizations that do this work, then there's no election in Georgia or throughout the South, really, that we can't win.

KELLY: Here is a fact, though. Republicans have tended to prevail in runoff elections in Georgia. And David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, the two Republicans on today's ballot, enjoy the name recognition and the fundraising networks that come from already being U.S. senators. Well, I put this to LaTosha Brown, the other co-founder of Black Voters Matter. Like Cliff, she was wearing double masks, dashing from car to car at the drive-in concert to wave at people and say hi, looking exhausted but determined.

LATOSHA BROWN: I am a Black woman from the Deep South. If I went by the odds, I would never do anything in this state. The bottom line is my entire body of work has been based on fighting, coming up against the odds of those who've had more resources, those who've had more power, those who've had all kinds of elements on their side.

KELLY: I asked Andra Gillespie for a reality check on the current level of Black engagement. She is a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta. And we know that in the November election, more than a million African Americans cast ballots in Georgia.

We were interviewing the co-founders of Black Voters Matter.

ANDRA GILLESPIE: Yeah.

KELLY: And they were saying they think they can beat that in the runoff. They're looking to get, like, 1.2 million Black voters out, which would be record-breaking and mind-blowing to do that in a runoff. Do you think it's realistic?

GILLESPIE: I think it's totally realistic to be able to do that.

KELLY: Professor Gillespie points to the unprecedented amount of money that poured into the state for these runoff elections - money that Democrats have used, among other things, for get-out-the-vote efforts like we've just been hearing about. But is Georgia as a state really in play?

GILLESPIE: The Democratic Party of Georgia has been making this claim that Georgia was going to turn blue for the better part of a decade. And I think it's important for listeners to realize that, yes, Georgia is becoming electorally more competitive, but that doesn't count out the Republican Party in this state. And what we're likely going to see are close margins for the foreseeable future and with alternating wins between Republican and Democratic candidates. So Georgia's just become very swingy at this particular point. It's not that Georgia is blue.

KELLY: Well, whether Georgia is America's new swing state was not top of mind today for Chibike Ekweozor when we bumped into him at a polling station in Smyrna, northwest of Atlanta.

CHIBIKE EKWEOZOR: It feels good. It feels different to know, like, you know, my vote counts and I have a say in what goes on. So, you know, it's something I'm proud of.

KELLY: Ekweozor turned 18 in December. He had just voted - first time in his life. His mom drove him to the polls.

EKWEOZOR: Any vote, every vote counts, whether it's - whoever is running, just vote because, you know, it's for a good cause. So that's why I do it.

KELLY: He's a nursing student at Georgia Southern. He says he couldn't wait to vote in this election, that his parents taught him the importance of voting. I wondered how it felt as a very young Black man exercising his right to vote in a state that has made it hard or impossible for people who look like him to exercise that right.

EKWEOZOR: I feel like as, you know, Black people, as African Americans, some people don't think voting really matters, like we have no say. Like, oh, what's one vote going to do? But at the end of the day, every vote is going to matter. Every vote is going to count. And so getting as much Black voters and, you know, African Americans to vote is going to make a big difference.

KELLY: Chibike Ekweozor, one of many voters we talked with as Georgians went to the polls today.

(SOUNDBITE OF MARIBOU STATE SONG, "GLASSHOUSES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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