Interrogation

What It’s Like for a Voting Rights Activist to Finally See Georgia in Play

Stressful, hopeful, not over yet.

Voters wave Biden-Harris campaign signs at the entrance to a polling station.
Gwinnett County voters wave Biden-Harris campaign signs at the entrance to a polling station on Tuesday in Norcross, Georgia. Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

As Election Day agonizingly came to a close Tuesday night, Joe Biden seemed within grasp of being the first Democratic presidential candidate to win the state of Georgia since Bill Clinton in 1992.

Biden trailed President Donald Trump by less than a percentage point as of Wednesday night, with more than 90,000 absentee votes reportedly remaining to be counted in some of the state’s most highly populated—and Democratic-friendly—counties.

That Georgia, long rock-solid for Republicans, remains in play is a testament to the state’s growing and diversifying population, but also to the work of organizers like Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project.

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The New Georgia Project was founded by Stacey Abrams in 2013. Years before she ran for governor and became a party superstar, Abrams launched the organization with the aim of remaking the state’s electorate into one that would mirror its population. Georgia has a long history of voter suppression, and Abrams’ goal was to register at least 120,000 minority voters across the state by the 2014 midterm elections. She fell short that year, but the organization has remained active ever since, claiming to have registered about 500,000 voters across the state.

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At the same time, Georgia has been systematically reducing polling locations, mostly under the watch of then–Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who went on to defeat Abrams for governor in 2018. Those closures have created disproportionately longer lines in Black communities that often discourage people from casting their votes.

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On Wednesday, I spoke by phone with Ufot during a brief break in an exhausting week. With results still hanging in the balance, Ufot, who joined the New Georgia Project in 2014, told me about her hopes for turning Georgia blue, how the state has continued to suppress votes, and what it will take for the rest of the South to follow Georgia’s promising lead.

Joel Anderson: So, it’s 3:30 p.m. Eastern time. What does the rest of your day look like? 

Nse Ufot: We’re basically going to go knock on Black folks’ doors and tell them that we know something about their ballot that they might not know and that we need them to sign an affidavit and do something about it. Those are not necessarily easy conversations to have, and we’re going to have another training tonight, just a briefing about how we’re about to be democracy ninjas. Like, “Here’s your 50 people. I need you to come back with their affidavits.” Or, “I need you to confirm that they’ve signed their affidavit and they sent it to their county board of elections.” Because some of it is as simple as they forgot to sign the outside of the envelope on their absentee ballot. And those are easy cures, those are easy fixes. But people don’t know that that’s why their ballot is being rejected.

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How many houses do you guys have to go to?

I can, with confidence, say we’re looking at a universe of 3,000. … I feel like people are trying to be helpful, but they’re not. There’s a guy on the internet telling people that there’s 40,000 rejected ballots in DeKalb County.

I’ve seen that!

Yeah. And it’s going viral. And it’s not helpful. It’s more like 3,000.

So what happens is some of those ballots, some of the 40,000, are people who sent back their absentee ballot and didn’t get confirmation that it was received. So they showed up to vote in person. And so their ballot was canceled.

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I know that people mean well. But we need to have quality information that people can rely on out there, and that ain’t it.

Disinformation is disinformation no matter where it comes from.

Yeah, 100 percent. And again, we are always on high alert for disinformation from bad actors, both foreign and domestic, but every now and then we are reminded that friendly fire is still fire. You still got shot.

You still have hope that those 3,000 votes are going to get counted and go into this tally? Are you not at all concerned that time is running out?

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I’m 1,000 percent concerned that time is running out. I believe we have until Friday at 7. But we also aren’t going to leave it all in the field, you know? Two or 3 million phone conversations, 2 million text messages, a million doors in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve been running around the country telling people about the opportunity in Georgia for six years. I’m not going to pull up short with these two days left before the ballot deadline.

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The results are still up in the air, but does this feel at all cathartic that Georgia is finally in play?

I mean, I watched way too much Charlie Brown as a kid to answer that. Republicans have Lucy’d me way too many times. So I will say that, again, I’m not taking our foot off the gas until Jan. 20.

So you don’t feel confident, then?

It’s not that I don’t feel confident. It’s just that … people lie, you know? And they have stolen elections. The entire country, the entire world watched the governor’s race be stolen in 2018, and there have been no consequences. Brian Kemp is our governor.

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Listen, people were so pumped and pleased with the [NBA’s Atlanta] Hawks because they made their arena available for a polling location. That’s where they’re counting Fulton County’s ballots. A brand new stadium … and a pipe burst?

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Yeah.

So, it’s not that I’m not confident. It’s just that I’m going to chop wood, I’m going to carry water until we see this thing all the way through.

Even if you lose, even if you’re Charlie Brown and you miss that kick, it doesn’t invalidate your theory of the potential of the electorate, does it?

No, not at all. In fact, I would say that, if we lost, it is an additional proof point that Black voters and voters of color are so essential to Georgia’s electoral outcomes that the folks who are in control of our elections infrastructure are doing everything to mute or neutralize the impact of their vote. That is how key the Black vote is to any electoral outcome in Georgia.

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So the numbers that you’re seeing are not even necessarily representative of what the potential is?

So, example: I woke up on Tuesday and found out that the place that I’d been voting for 20 years, that I wasn’t supposed to vote there on Election Day.

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Wow.

We still don’t have the final tally, but Fulton and DeKalb counties, two of the largest and two of the Blackest counties in the state of Georgia, right now are up to 75 polling locations that were changed within 24 hours of the polls opening on Election Day.

Again, I’m a super sophisticated voter. I’m a strategist, I do this, I think about this all day, and I was able to shift and pivot. The reason that I found out about it is because there was almost a fistfight at my polling location.

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Now, it also gives you a sense of the kind of neighborhood that I live in, because voters showed up who had been voting there for multiple cycles and were told that they were in the wrong location, that their polling location had been moved. People were like, “What?”

When you showed up, what did they say the reason was that your polling location had changed all of a sudden?

Well, they, being the poll workers, have no idea. They have no idea. We are still making that inquiry. Everything that I’ve gotten has been sort of bullshit. The idea is that their projections were off, that they needed more polling locations than they thought, or they needed less polling locations than they thought. We’ve gotten both answers.

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So, what did we have to do? We took to our social media. We went to Kinko’s and to any printing shop that would have us. We printed out these giant sandwich board signs for volunteers to wear that said, “Your polling location has been changed. Go here.” That work was happening at 9 a.m. on Election Day.

[There were also] lots of misinformation campaigns targeting grassroots organizations, saying that we aren’t allowed to do what they call “line warming.” We weren’t allowed to give water, give snacks, portable cellphone charges, chairs, etc., because that would somehow be considered compensation, like something of value in exchange for their vote. Not true. Not at all. We’ve been doing this work for ages. The ACLU, the NAACP, tons of organizations have been doing this work forever. But they got ahold of a handful of journalists, planted that seed in the public sphere, and there were some overzealous election workers that were telling folks that we couldn’t be there. We had to move our food trucks, etc.

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When you have that sort of situation, do you guys just retreat and regroup?

Yeah, exactly, because we don’t want to be a distraction. We don’t want to encourage law enforcement to have any more interaction with voters than they have to.

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What we coach our volunteers and staff to do is to retreat, call us, and then shift if necessary, sometimes bringing in a “supervisor,” which is sometimes just another volunteer.

I think a lot of people know about voter suppression. It can be a huge hurdle for a candidate to overcome. But it doesn’t always come up when people talk about campaign failures.

I think we do ourselves a disservice when we aren’t radically honest about what it takes to win. I wish that somebody would’ve told me all of the things, which I mean, part of it is people just didn’t know the extent to how nasty it got and how aggressive they are with voter suppression. I feel like it’s my responsibility to be honest about the hurdles that need to be cleared and the challenges that are ahead, but what I also know about the psychology of it is that it can be demotivational. People will be like, “Fuck it, well, why bother? They’re going to steal it anyway.”

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Right.

There’s a fine line that we walk in being honest about what it takes to win, but while not discouraging or dismaying people, because honestly, that’s also one of the sort of aims of disinformation. Black men were not going for Trump in crazy numbers. That narrative would not die. There’s all kinds of trolling and everybody’s wringing their hands, “Oh no, Trump might get 30 percent of the black male vote.” No. They were pushing that narrative.

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We now know that Trump did better with white voters. We should’ve done more to invest in protecting the integrity of the vote, investing in Black voters, investing in young voters, because just pointing out how awful Trump is has not worked.

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Obviously, suppression is larger than one person, but is a lot of what you’re seeing in Georgia the result of Brian Kemp’s attack on the integrity of the elections?

I think it absolutely goes beyond that. I’ve been quoted before saying this, but the Confederacy and the civil rights movement both have claim to Georgia’s past. Right now, what we are all living through and witnessing is a fight for Georgia’s future. It feels like the entire sort of conservative, Southern, white dude establishment is losing its grip, its outside influence. I mean, he didn’t win, but we were talking about [Senate candidate] Mike Espy in Mississippi, and Adrian Perkins in Louisiana, Raphael Warnock in Georgia, Jaime Harrison in South Carolina. Obviously, there’s still a way to go, but the fact that they made it through primaries, Southern Democratic primaries, the fact that they were real contenders, the fact that Jaime Harrison is in a world where he outspent Lindsey Graham.

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I think this is a reaction to the browning of America, the browning of the South, the idea that Black Democrats are becoming more progressive or that there are more progressive voices. Because, I mean, if we’re being honest, there was a conservative streak, or at least a moderate streak, amongst Black Southern Democrats, and there was some gentlemen’s agreement and a lot of negotiations between white Republicans and Black Dems in the South. The whole system is being challenged, is being interrogated, you know? And I think that that is what is at play, not just Brian Kemp being really good at voter suppression.

It’s unclear what the final result will be in Georgia. But there have been losses in other Southern states. It seems like people get especially disappointed when the South lets them down. What message are you passing on so people don’t give up on the South?

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That this is real. That it might not seem like it to them, but it’s real. This is an opportunity for us to get smarter, for us to regroup, to know where the opportunities are, because I feel like, yeah, Texas in ’20 was a long shot. I know that, you know that, but that we should allow ourselves to dream, right? That we should allow ourselves to hope. There’s no way that Texas is going to flip if we can’t even conceive it in our minds, if we can’t even hope for it.

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Like Georgia is in the position … and look at me talking like Georgia’s been a swing state forever, right? [laughs] But Georgia’s been in this position because of demographics and investment and organizing, right? And so there’s definitely organizing that’s happening. But the investment in Texas hasn’t happened for very long, right? The demographics are coming along and they’re doing what they’re supposed to do, but that takes time.

Stacey Abrams deserves a lot of credit for this too, right? 

Absolutely. Stacey almost gave America its first Black woman governor, right? And while I feel like I am an extraordinary organizer, my platform, my stage is in the spreadsheets, in the data, and in Black church basements and housing projects across the state—Stacey got Joe Biden and the DNC to take Georgia seriously, to invest. And so, I mean, while I feel like the work that I do is central and important to this change, I know we wouldn’t be in the position that we’re in without her leadership and her vision and her relationships. Yeah, she deserves a lot of credit.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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