Artwork from the Georgia Association of Elected Officials.
In recent years, voter education campaigns have helped to register and inspire tens of thousands of diverse Georgia residents to vote. During the November 2020 elections, Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp reported that voter turnout was at an all-time high, with more than four million people casting ballots. In the presidential race, they narrowly played a part in turning the historically red state blue. But the state’s two U.S. Senate races were so close they are now heading for January 5 runoffs that will determine control of the Senate—and the prospects of President-elect Joe Biden’s policies on public education, immigration, affordable health care, climate change, and other priorities.
According to Pew Research Center, Latinos make up about 5% of Georgia’s voters, and many experts believe they could play a pivotal role in the runoffs, provided they show up again. Numerous Latino advocacy groups started working to make that happen well before polls opened this week for early voting. With the coronavirus pandemic limiting everyone’s mobility, get-out-the-vote advocacy groups have pivoted from their usual mass door-to-door canvassing efforts to greater social media, phone, text, email, and mailing campaigns. Their message? In Georgia races that could affect the whole country, everyone—students, educators, parents, and other concerned citizens and residents across the United States—can get involved.
One of those advocacy groups is the Georgia Association of Elected Officials (GALEO). When GALEO was founded in 2004, only 10,000 Latinos were registered to vote in Georgia. As of today, GALEO and other like-minded organizations have registered more than 250,000 Latinos and campaigned for comprehensive immigration reform, including a pathway to citizenship for DACA recipients—all issues that have resonated with the state’s growing Latino and immigrant population.
The latest U.S. Census data shows that there are about one million Latinos in the state of Georgia—about 9% of the overall population. GALEO estimates that about half of them are foreign–born, and Pew Research data shows that one in four are eligible voters, provided they have citizenship. At the same time, there are a total of one million foreign-born Georgia residents of all backgrounds, and many of them have been going through the process of becoming citizens, so these are target populations for GALEO’s work.
“Normally we would register tens of thousands of new citizens at naturalization ceremonies, but we couldn’t because of the pandemic,” says GAELO CEO Jerry Gonzalez, adding that the very Southern, formerly Confederate state Georgia has often been hostile towards people of color, as well as immigrants, and voting rights. “We’ve fought a lot of battles along those lines. We’ve created an environment of engagement.”
Gonzalez says Latinos have a duty to push for greater representation through the electoral process because of their experience with these struggles.
“You have a greater responsibility to lift your voice, not just for yourself and your family, but also for the broader family, which is community. That’s critically important, and that’s part of the messaging that we drive home,” he says, adding that GALEO is keen on showing those who can’t vote to see the power they still have. “Just because people aren’t citizens doesn’t mean that they can’t engage in helping us turn out those who are.”
GALEO works in parallel to dozens of other multi-ethnic voter education and advocacy organizations, including those spearheaded by voting rights activist and former Georgia State Rep. Stacey Abrams, the first Black woman to run for governor. Abrams, a Democrat, lost to Republican Brian Kemp in a race marked by accusations of voter suppression. In the wake of that loss, she founded Fair Fight, a nonprofit organization designed to raise awareness about voting rights and the many ways they can be squelched. That tough loss galvanized grassroots efforts to grow voter turnout, giving rise to many new like-minded organizations and coalitions.
One such group is the Latino Community Fund of Georgia (LCF Georgia), a member of Latinos for Democracy, a coalition of seven Latinx-led organizations working on voter education, registration, mobilization, and protection in Georgia. Like its counterparts, LCF Georgia is working round the clock to ensure eligible Georgians show up to vote and encouraging them to vote on behalf of those historically suppressed or underrepresented populations.
“Since 2018, when we launched the Latinos for Democracy Coalition, we never stopped working to educate, inform, register, mobilize, and protect voters and the community at large as they engage civically,” says LCF Georgia Executive Director Gilda Pedraza. “We define civic participation broadly because we believe that we can all participate in different roles and voting is just one of them. For example, our DACA and undocumented volunteers translate, support protection efforts, take care of children, bring water, and donate. We all keep elected and appointed officials accountable, and parents advocate for their children by participating in our advocacy efforts for K-12 English Learners (ELs).”
She says since the general election, her group has already texted more than 100,000 Latinx voters, knocked on more than 1,000 doors, and mailed 118,000 mailers to early advance voters encouraging them to show up again for the run-off election, and the group will continue to engage in these get-out-the-vote and know-your-rights awareness campaigns up through the end of election day on January 5.
Additionally, they’re conscientizing the community through pandemic-era humanitarian efforts since some 20% of Latinos in Georgia have gotten sick and many more are at risk of eviction and food shortages because of lost wages.
“Our approach has always been to care about voters and not to focus on the votes, so the community can see the connection between policies and their daily lives,” says Pedraza.
Georgia’s Role in Public Education
Before and now, in the midst of the pandemic, equal access to public education has been a major part of LCF’s work. According to a 2020 UnidosUS fact sheet on Latino students and English learners, Latinos represent nearly 16% of the state’s public school population. The Georgia Budget and Policy Institute reports that nearly 109,000 Georgia public school students are Els, and 78% of those come from Spanish speaking homes. Pedraza says Georgia has done little to meet their needs in a culturally or linguistically relevant way, and notes that without such supports, these students struggle to perform at grade level so that they can graduate and have the possibility of accessing a higher degree. As such, LCF Georgia is helping to fund and organize Georgia English Learners in K-12, an EL policy and advocacy coalition to address their needs.
LCF Georgia and GALEO both know the funding and political will needed to improve these issues in Georgia and potentially at the federal level could be drastically impacted by who wins those Georgia Senate seats. Republicans will hold onto a narrow Senate majority with a win by one or both of the GOP incumbents, Senators David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler. Democrats take control if their challengers, Jon Ossoff and the Reverend Raphael Warnock, win.
UnidosUS Associate Director of Education Policy Amalia Chamorro says her team of analysts are carefully watching to see how Georgia’s runoffs will affect the fate of the Senate.
“Getting relief on key education priorities for Latinos including funding for English Learners, student debt cancellation, and emergency aid for mixed-status families and DACA students will depend on who Biden will have to work with and negotiate with in the Senate to move on these priorities,” she says. “Georgia’s Senate runoffs will also determine the party and Senators who will lead key education policy and appropriations committees and shape the agenda in the next Congress.”
Given the potential impact on education funding, who better to spread the word than Georgia students themselves?
Both LCF and GALEO have participated in school presentations on civic engagement and gone to high school and college campuses for voter registration. But Gonzalez says even though they don’t advocate for specific candidates, talking about voting in the classroom can be tricky.
“Many educators are reluctant to engage in that type of activity here in Georgia because of the hostility that exists,” says Gonzalez, noting that in the deep South fear the change in status quo that voter registration and voter mobilization could bring. He says there have even been efforts by state legislators to cut funding for institutions hosting panel discussions on voter education.
Still, he says today’s students are so tech and social media savvy, they can easily engage in such activities outside the classroom, and that’s even easier if they get the right public messaging. That could come in the form of a Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook campaign, or even through a good old-fashioned holiday card with a word of encouragement to households with eligible voters, he says. In fact, GALEO’s website provides details on how to get those cards into their mailboxes.
Power to the People
“There are lots of innovative ways to engage people,” he says, noting that GALEO has partnered with news media outlets, especially Spanish speaking ones, to promote those channels of engagement.
Pedraza added to that list by saying students, educators, or any other concerned members of the public can volunteer for text and phone banking shifts, send monetary donations to help compensate the efforts of activists on the ground, or provided the mail service is moving fast enough, send civic engagement workers and volunteers care packages. Finally, said Pedraza, “if you have folks in Georgia, call them.”
Furthermore, it doesn’t really matter what ethnic background of voter you’re mobilizing, so long as they recognize the importance of the issues at hand and how they and their communities are impacted.
“Our presents and futures are interconnected,” she said. “We cannot move the state forward and get fair and equitable representation and political power unless we work together to accomplish that. Our struggles are similar, our wins are too.”