Ttwo days before Election Day, more than three dozen black men and boys gathered in Jonesboro, Georgia, to share what they would say if they were sitting across from the state’s next governor.
“I’d like to ask our politicians, ‘What exactly is your black agenda for black people?'” said one. “It doesn’t trickle down where you do something for everyone, no. “What special thing about black men and black people do you have?”
The issues the men raised ranged from low wages to education issues, concerns about the health and safety of their children and quiet refusal. But for most of the men gathered that day, one constant theme emerged: whether Georgia’s next leader — whether it’s Democrat Stacey Abrams or Republican Brian Kemp — will keep his focus on the state’s black residents.
“I would ask them, ‘Outside of the election period, are you engaged with us?'” another attendee asked. “Do you engage with black and brown people and help us advance and progress in property ownership, voting rights, and everything that gives us equal footing to make us equal to our fellow men?” The other men applauded.
Black voters have become a powerful force in Georgia politics — in 2020 they turned Georgia blue for President Joe Biden, then proved to be a crucial voting bloc in electing the state’s two new Democratic senators, whose victories secured control of Congress of the Democratic Party. It was a celebratory moment for Georgia Democrats and the state’s black community. But two years later, many black voters are more ambivalent about their vote, as was made clear during a discussion hosted by the Black Man Lab, which provides a space for black men and boys to talk about their feelings and learn one of another.
Democrats Abrams and Sen Raphael Warnock will need strong support from black Georgians to win on Tuesday. Black voters are turning out in big numbers again this year, but not because they’re particularly happy with Democrats. Some polls show Democrats losing support from this group. In 2018, for example, exit polls and the AP VoteCast found that more than 93 percent of voters supported Abrams, compared to 83 percent in an early October poll average. According to Washington Publish.
According to the Georgia Secretary of State’s census, early voter turnout for the midterm exams broke the state’s previous record. By Saturday, after in-person early voting ended, more than 2.5 million Georgians had voted at polling stations or returned their absentee ballots. Multiple exits reported that the share of early voters who are black has increased compared to 2020. “We were able to make a loud noise in the last election, so we’re certainly looking to make a very loud noise in this election,” says Tokaro Combs , a member of the Clayton County NAACP Executive Leadership Team.
Polls in Georgia continue to show that black voters overwhelmingly favor Democrats. But at the Black Man Lab gathering in Clayton County — where nearly three out of four residents are black, one of the highest shares of any county in America — most attendees weren’t particularly enthusiastic about a candidate or political party. (The Black Man Lab tour was held in partnership with the New Georgia Project, a civic engagement group Abrams founded about a decade ago. Abrams hasn’t been involved with the group in five years, according to executive director Kendra Cotton.)
“People are trying to charm our community with pretty words,” said Glenn Gilkey, a self-employed inventor of natural hair tools who attended the Clayton Country event and said he did not identify with either party. “What change did we see? We’re talking about the same issues we talked about 50 years ago.
Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams speaks at a Georgia Democratic campaign event in College Park, Georgia on October 28, 2022.
Elijah Nuvelage—Getty Images
Voters with great opportunities
In 2020, grassroots groups like the New Georgia Project worked to increase voter turnout among black voters and other voters of color, which helped propel Democrats to power. They’re trying to do the same this year, but they say there’s not enough money: Faced with a $2 million budget shortfall, Cotton said the New Georgia Project has canceled several initiatives to focus on campaigning.
“We have an official party apparatus that seems to have decided it no longer has the stomach for what is intensive organizing that needs to be done 365, 24/7,” says Cotton. But she acknowledges that black voters are getting tired of the constant election cycles: “There is some voter fatigue.”
Instead of wooing the high-probability voters who tend to show up on campaign lists, organizers are trying to find what they call “high-opportunity” voters where they already are, at civic events, farmers markets or outdoor concerts. These are the voters that politicians traditionally consider “low propensity” because they vote only sporadically or without clear party preferences.
But LaTosha Brown, who co-founded the voting rights group Black Voters Matter, says low enthusiasm doesn’t necessarily mean low turnout. “I’m a super voter and I’ve voted and not been excited,” Brown says. “Do you know how many elections black people haven’t been excited about, without a single candidate we were excited to vote for?”
Organizers, including the New Georgia Project, are encouraging black voters to vote early this year to head off potential registration issues and avoid an expected increase in voter intimidation at the polls. Ranard Wagner, 36, who lives in Atlanta, is one resident who voted early. He does not identify with a political party and says he has “no feeling” about this election. He voted for Biden in the 2020 general election after supporting Tulsi Gabbard in the Democratic primary. Now, he says, she’s “taken a hit in the head,” the same words he used to describe the Republican candidate for the Georgia Senate Herschel Walker.
Towards the end of early voting in Georgia, Wagner voted for Warnock. But as he was going to the polls, “two guys came out in a pick-up truck [of] the car and ask me if I am legally registered to vote? And I looked at them and I was like, ‘Get away from me,'” Wagner recalled. “I walked into the polling center and said, ‘There are two guys in tactical gear’… and [a poll worker] it was like ‘oh my god are they there again?’
Senator Raphael Warnock speaks with members of the press during an introduction on November 6, 2022 in Savannah, Georgia.
Alex Wong—Getty Images
“There is more work to be done”
Some black voters in Georgia feel they have been misled about policy decisions by the leaders they helped elect.
Taifa Smith Butler, president of the progressive think tank Demos, has lived in Georgia for years. She believes Democrats could have done more to win the support of voters of color and blames corporate lobbying interests for forcing Democrats to cut back the Build Back Better bill and turn it into Inflation Reduction Act, which passed without provisions that Biden had promised on the campaign trail, including federal paid family and medical leave, funding for universal pre-K and subsidized child care. “The black and brown communities were certainly advocating for elements around climate and environment in this legislation,” says Butler. “But there are a lot more things that were in the process of being cut, in terms of the Inflation Reduction Act, around child care, health care options.”
Some black Democrats also see flaws in the party’s framing of economic issues, which consistently rank as voters’ top concerns: Instead of talking about underemployment and the state’s low minimum wage, some say the party is too focused on inflation, which polls suggest is an issue that could give Republicans an edge. “People really feel forgotten after the election cycle,” Butler continues. “There is still work to be done for the Democrats. I think there is certainly more work to be done for the Republican Party.
On the same day that the group of black men met in Clayton County, Herschel Walker held a rally an hour northeast in Hiram. Although the crowd was mostly white, there were a handful of black attendees. The two black voters who spoke to TIME were not recent converts to the Republican Party; they had voted for Trump in 2016. Walker “will be better than Warnock because Warnock hasn’t done anything for Georgia,” said Dorothy Harp, 72, a Reagan-era Republican who has followed the football career Walker’s just as long.
Amid the intense focus on the black electorate in Georgia, progressive black voters are wary of taking the blame if Warnock or Abrams lose to Republicans next week. “Don’t white people lose elections?” says Brown of Black Voters Matter. “When white people lose an election or Republicans lose an election, it doesn’t become a complete indictment of who they are as a people.”
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