College junior Christina Williams voted in her first ever presidential election this November. But the 20-year-old Philadelphian has always been politically active at Clark Atlanta University (CAU), the historically Black college in Atlanta, Georgia, where she majors in political science. For this plucky student organizer preparing for Georgia’s hotly-contested double Senate runoffs, the work never stops.
“I actually just met again today with our orientation guides to really try to push our message directly to freshmen,” Williams said. “You know that small, little subset of 17-year-olds—they seem to be eligible.”
Mobilizing Georgians to vote in January’s U.S. Senate runoffs and turning out the same record voting numbers as back in November will be no small feat for organizers like Williams. In particular, young voters made up about 20% of all votes cast in Georgia in November—the highest youth vote share of any state in the country—and a precipitous decline in youth voters in January could make or break the Senate for Democrats.
Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock are challenging the Senate seats held by Republican incumbents Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively. Control of the Senate hangs in the balance, with the GOP controlling 50 seats and Democrats 48 after the general election.
Williams is concerned that some of her fellow students may “tune out” of the Senate races, and miss out on messaging because they’re not checking email after the semester begins.
“While we can celebrate that yes, we had this amazing turnout [and] we talked about how our issues and concerns can be addressed by this government. If we can think about how much of that we can realistically do, it comes down to these elections,” Williams added.
With millions of out-of-state dollars being poured daily into the political campaigning around the Senate runoffs, Asian American Advocacy Fund’s Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood said the challenge isn’t about getting voters to care. It’s about getting them to show up.
“I think it’s about connecting the dots that yes, we have a Biden presidency. Yes, we have a majority in the House. But without a majority in the Senate, the things that we want are not necessarily going to happen that easily,” the 27-year-old said.
Mahmood oversees most of the Asian American voter engagement efforts for the progressive community in Atlanta.
“The education that really has to happen is more going to be focused on why it is so important for young voters and voters of color to show up once again and make their voices heard,” Mahmood added. “And why these [Senate] candidates in particular are going to be the key to achieving those real policy wins that our communities need to see.”
Mahmood knows the importance of local politics. In 2018, spurred by the Trump Administration’s backlash against Muslims, immigrants, and communities of color, the then-24-year-old ran for Georgia’s State House District 97. The district covers Gwinnett County, home to the most diverse population in Georgia and the largest number of Asian, Latinx, and Pacific-Islander residents in the Atlanta metro area.
Mahmood fell short of victory only by a couple thousand votes, a sign that her candidacy had struck a chord in the diverse, yet still Republican-heavy district.
“My favorite part was really just talking to voters and putting myself out there in a way that went beyond any sort of political divide,” Mahmood said. “And making sure I was talking to voters about the issues they cared about, rather than the issues they were hearing about in the media.”
CAU political scientist Tammy Greer, who teaches civic engagement and participation, said voters tend to get disillusioned after presidential elections because they don’t see immediate results. A lack of voter education also lies behind the apathy that defines most local and state elections, according to Greer.
“People in general are not clear on what the mayor does, what the city council does, what the Public Service Commission does, and what your county commissioner does,” she added. “You can vote for all of these positions.”
In order to reach more voters, community organizers should localize hot-button issues, tailor their messaging according to the community, and connect with local leaders to build support, she recommended.
Greer also cites an “enormous” number of eligible voters in Georgia who remain untapped, even as national pundits poured accolades on the state for record voter turnout. Over 7 million Georgians were registered to vote in the November elections; yet the actual number of people who voted for the presidency came in under 5 million, a surprisingly lukewarm turnout given Georgia’s recent population boom, Greer noted.
This is why ProGeorgia’s Tameika Atkins is already thinking beyond the Jan. 5 runoffs. Atkins runs the statewide voter registration coalition, which many have credited in a long list of grassroots organizations that laid the groundwork for turning Georgia blue in November.
“We have a legislative session that starts on Jan. 13, and we often see legislation that is destructive to working-class people, everyday people, Black and brown people, immigrants, and undocumented folks,” the 39-year-old advocate said. “So our fight will continue, frankly, after Jan. 5th.”
In many ways, ProGeorgia is already ahead of the game. When the pandemic broke out in late March, the group provided laptops and essential technology to its canvassers to help them conduct digital outreach. During the George Floyd protests, they gave away thousands of masks and branded T-shirts displaying a QR code that would lead people to a voter registration site. In the meantime, ProGeorgia’s bread-and-butter organizing continues. The group provides direct services including ESL lessons, child care, CPR, and basic medical training to the communities that need it the most, and integrates voter outreach where they can.
“If you’ve heard from folks throughout the year, all year, for up to eight years, then you build trust,” Atkins said.
Mahmood agreed. In multiracial and multiethnic Gwinnett County, young organizers with the Asian American Advocacy Fund have been working hard to translate voting materials and educating their elders about America’s political system. In the absence of door-knocking, they have also reached out to ethnic media to spread awareness about the Senate elections.
“What good does flipping the Senate do if we’re still not going to get the victories we need for our communities?” Mahmood asked.
To Mahmood, it comes back to the issues that communities care about, such as health care access, immigration reform, student loan forgiveness, and better and cheaper education for all.
“I think the more we talk about those issues, the better we can resonate with our voters,” Mahmood said.