The Road Leads Back to You, Georgia

An African American woman puts stamps at the dining table.
Laila Ford fixes stamps on mail going to Georgia. Photo by Allie Whitehurst.

Throughout the first day of December, over 30 volunteers dropped off a thousand hand-written postcards destined for Georgia voters at the East Oakland home of Allie Whitehurst. After volunteers checked off assigned names from voter lists, Whitehurst’s granddaughter, Laila Ford, fixed the stamps. With looming deadlines to register and request an additional mail-in ballot, the cards needed to be in voters’ hands soon.

Whitehurst’s crew—composed mainly of women from her church, Allen Temple, and several men from the Oakland’s NAACP—had already sent thousands of postcards throughout the summer to three southern states with histories of voter suppression. “Looking at the names,” she told me in a phone interview, “you could tell that a lot of them were African American, Asian and Hispanic…we were really targeting a population that is important for us.” 

These volunteers are a part of a large effort from everyday people across the country who are focusing their eyes on Georgia’s upcoming runoff elections. On January 5, Georgia voters will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate as rabid pro-Trump Repubicans, Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, face Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively. A twin victory by the Democrats would give vice president-elect Kamala Harris the tie breaking vote in the senate.

Headshots of Democrats Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are vying for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia against two pro-Trump Republicans.
Democrats Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff are vying for two U.S. Senate seats in Georgia against two pro-Trump Republicans.

These volunteers were already activated in earlier months. This includes thousands of East Bay activists who wrote postcards and letters and made phone calls to voters in swing states leading up to the November 3 election. Most, like Whitehurst, were driven by the desire to persuade voters of color to cast their ballots. Some did so with an eye towards the “long game”—laying the groundwork for  “the progressive decade,” as one activist put it.

Others, like me, wrote letters to do something at the gnawing prospect of four more years of Trump. Regardless of motivation, these efforts paid off with a record voter turnout and Biden presidency. Now, the same activists are doubling down for the Georgia run-off.

As soon as the need for a run-off election for the two Georgia senate seats became clear, “I started getting calls,” Whitehurst said. “We’re fueled by hope, just trying to put out that positive vibe to people who might feel reluctant, disengaged, or feeling like it’s just not worth it. Signing your name, saying stay safe and take care … is just a joy.”

Georgia’s unusual system, which forces runoff elections between the two top vote-getters when neither candidate achieves more than 50% of the vote, is itself rooted in suppressing black voters. Run-off elections, which dilute the power of a simple plurality, became an “end around” tactic by Georgia segregationists to counter the emerging civil and voting rights legislation in the mid-1960’s.

Across town in the Laurel district, Jody Lerner distributed two thousand Georgia addresses in 36 hours. As fund-raising coordinator for the East Bay Activist Alliance (EBAA), Lerner kept a box on her front porch throughout the 2020 campaign. “Stamps, postcards, scripts…the whole bit,” she said. The 95 active writers on her list dropped by when they could to pass out postcards to “family and friends, from book clubs to meditation groups.”

While EBAA’s work—which works on flipping state legislatures in swing states and with groups that fight voter suppression—is formally finished this election cycle, activists “are hungry to keep doing more,” Lerner said. “Everybody with an ounce of activism is working on Georgia. It’s fair to say there will be no address unsent to, no text that will go unsent, no phone number not called. We didn’t get this far to not push it across the finish line.”

“Everybody with an ounce of activism is working on Georgia. It’s fair to say there will be no address unsent to, no text that will go unsent, no phone number not called. We didn’t get this far to not push it across the finish line.”

Jody Lerner, fundraising coordinator for East Bay Activist Alliance

Few have their eye on that finish line more than Claire Murphy. “In seven days,” she said, “I distributed over 106,000 addresses to many of our 650 volunteers,” Whitehurst and Lerner among them. Murphy is the regional volunteer coordinator for Reclaim Our Vote (ROV), a POC-led, nonpartisan project which reaches out to voters of color in states with long histories of voter suppression. “The demand was humongous. Nationally, ROV distributed 2.7 million addresses.” 

In Georgia, ROV partners with over a dozen grassroots organizations, which are also led by people of color, to provide voter information and get out the vote. ROV does not discuss policies or candidates but focuses strictly on getting eligible voters to the polls. “We don’t tell people how to vote but they have a pretty good idea of who’s got their back and who doesn’t,” Murphy said. With 1.5 million voters to contact, ROV has shifted from postcarding to phone banking in the run up to the January 5 election. (For training and to get started with phone calls, go here).

An African American woman wearing a face mask checks postcards.
Robin Thompson Webb makes a final check of postcards from Oakland to Georgia voters. Photo by Allie Whitehurst.

In contrast to ROV’s strictly nonpartisan efforts, other local, all-volunteer groups are now working directly with the Ossoff and Warnock campaigns in Georgia. Debbie Raucher, who chairs Swing Left East Bay’s (SLEB) steering committee, told me that at least a thousand volunteers from her group wrote letters and made phone calls to voters in swing states in the two months leading up to the national election. 

“With December 7 as the last last day to send letters to Georgia, we’ll pretty much focus exclusively on phone banking. We do our own 30 minute training on Zoom and walk people through the script before sending them off with a trainer to breakout rooms.” SLEB is hosting two-hour Zoom phonebanking sessions every Saturday and Sunday through the first weekend of January, with many more opportunities available throughout the Bay Area and Swing Left’s national network

Like Swing Left, a multitude of diverse organizations—from local food distribution programs to the Sierra Club—are plugging into the social advocacy platform Mobilize to contact Georgia voters daily up to January 5.

“People are fired up,” Raucher said. “The campaigns have been very appreciative and welcoming of our participation. They set the strategy, define the target population, and messaging. We’re just providing extra volunteers. There’s a lot of people who need to be called.”

Is there a more productive way to stay-at-home for those of us fortunate enough to be able to do so? Cue up Ray Charles, and pick up the phone.

One Comment

  1. Fred T Stein

    Exhaustive article, and fair representation of efforts made to level the field. Thanks, Bill

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