Black organizers were the real heroes of the Georgia Senate runoff

From Stacey Abrams to college student volunteers, activists overcame incredible odds to help deliver Senator Raphael Warnock a victory against Hershel Walker.

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The odds were stacked against them, but they never gave up.

Black organizers from Georgia and across the country helped bring out the 3.5 million voters who cast ballots for the runoff election between Senator Raphael Warnock and Herschel Walker, in the face of new laws that complicated the process.

georgia runoff
Senator Reverend Raphael Warnock (D-GA) delivers a victory speech at his election night party in Atlanta, Georgia on December 6th, 2022 following the stateâs Senate runoff election. (Photo by Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

After neither Warnock nor Walker hit the 50% mark in the general midterm election in November, organizers had to immediately rally people to come back to vote again, with only three weeks for early voting, compared to nine weeks last year.  

“People were like, what are we voting for now?” says Hannah Gebresilassie, organizer and co-founder of Protect the Vote GA, who explained that some voters had to be educated about what a runoff even was.

The shortened early voting window was thanks to S.B. 202, a bill introduced and passed by Georgia’s Republican-led state governing body in March 2021, framed as an “election integrity bill.”

“We saw lines that were 2 hours, 3 hours long all around the state,” said Gebresilassie in an interview with theGrio. “Not only that, but in certain counties, there have been budget cuts, so they [were] assigning fewer poll workers to work the polls.

Gebresilassie said the long lines also made it harder for the disabled, parents, and working residents. As an organizer, she had to refrain from handing out water or umbrellas in the rain to comply with S.B. 202’s new regulations.

georgia senate runoff
ATLANTA, GEORGIA – NOVEMBER 29: Residents wait in line to vote early outside a polling station on November 29, 2022 in Atlanta, Georgia. Early voting has started in select Georgia counties for a special runoff election days after the Georgia Supreme Court rejected an emergency request from Republicans to block counties from offering early voting. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

“What those lines represent is a flawed system that needs to be addressed and that needs to be corrected. We’ve seen pregnant moms, nine months, waiting in line… parents with small little kids waiting in line. People who have to leave the line after an hour because they have to go to work. And it’s really disheartening. But those lines also represent resilience, passion and dedication among voters.“

After Georgia Republicans declared early voting on the Saturday after the Thanksgiving holiday violated Georgia law, the Warnock campaign sued to have the Saturday added back to the calendar and won. Even with the legal victory, activists had to help voters figure out what polling places would be open on the weekend.

Organizers rallied hard to reach as many people as possible to compensate for the extra labor. Thanks to the work of leaders like Stacey Abrams and The New Georgia Project, and Latosha Brown from Black Voters Matter, there was headway already made to register voters who were often overlooked.

georgia runoff
Democratic Gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams poses for photographs with employees of Busy Bee Cafe on November 6, 2018 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

The New Georgia Project Action Fund (NGPAF) is part of a coalition of voting rights groups, which managed to knock on at least 5 million doors in the shortened window of time to rally registered voters, according to organizer Elijah Grace. Grace says the group sent approximately 400-500 canvassers a day to get out the vote.

One group that was part of the coalition was the Black Male Initiative Georgia, which said Black men’s concerns about jobs, health, and the cost of living, amongst other issues, led them to commit to voting in the runoff.

“It is critically important that we’re clear about the fact that Black men are not lazy, are not late, are not apathetic, but we are showing up,” said John Taylor, co-founder of the group.

College organizers also endured significant challenges in organizing young people to show up. S.B. 202’s new rules around voter ID meant that if a student attended a private college, they couldn’t use their student ID to vote — an impact that would be felt by students at HBCUs like Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University. And for students visiting home for the holidays, it would be too late to put an absentee ballot in the mail, meaning they’d have to come in person.

To address the disparity, hundreds of volunteers canvassed Georgia colleges, and texted and called student voters amid final exams to engage them.  

All of the work to inform, find, and help send voters to the right locations, meant big sacrifices for Black organizers and activists. Not only did organizers miss holiday time with family and loved ones, many felt the toll of their labor on their bodies.

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The co-founders of Protect the Vote GA are three Black women, Hannah Joy Gebresilassie, Crystal Greer, Britt Burns.
(Courtesy Protect the Vote)

Activists and organizers are very tired and drained right now in Georgia. This has been nonstop. The primaries were over the summer and we were getting ready for the general. And then we never stopped to take a break. We had to get ready for the runoff,” said Gebresilassie of Protect the Vote GA.

She added, “And so if you know an organizer, you know, an activist, you know, send them some love and check on them because it’s hard, you know, but we do it because we know all of our lives are it. This is affecting all of our lives.

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Georgia Democratic Senate candidate U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock (C) (D-GA) and Sen. Jon Ossoff (R) (D-GA) have their picture taken with supporters after a Get Out the Vote rally December 3, 2022 in Hephzibah, Georgia.(Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Now that the runoff is over and Senator Warnock has been elected in a decisive victory, activists are celebrating the fruits of their labor and those who labored before them.

“This is not only a win for Georgia; it is a win for democracy,” said Latosha Brown and Cliff Albright of Black Voters Matter, in a joint statement.

“We closed the margins throughout the state – flipping key rural counties like Baldwin blue. We pushed back against negative stereotypes of Black men in the media. We fought against Republican legal tactics to deny us early voting access,” the statement continued. “Despite – or perhaps because of – new voting restrictions, like SB 202, and vigilante scare tactics, Black voters turned out in force and proved once again that we are the engine that drives progressive power in the state.”

For Gebresilassie, who became an organizer in the wake of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, she’s making room to experience joy until the next inevitable fight ahead. “I feel overjoyed that we crossed the finish line and Georgia made history again,” she says.

“This feeling is surreal to be on the other side of the runoff election results…Georgians showed up in the face of adversity.”

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