When Jessica Byrd from the Stacey Abrams campaign asked a fired-up crowd here how many of them were ready to go vote, on this final early-voting Sunday in Georgia, only about a quarter of the audience raised their hand. A moment of concern followed. But then she asked: ”How many of you have already voted?” And the rest of the crowd of mostly African-American Democrats waved their hands and cheered.
This was a gathering of activists, and most of them had already done their civic duty—as have a record-breaking number of Georgia voters this year. As of Thursday, 944,426 Georgians had voted—almost three times as many as had cast ballots at that point in the 2014 midterms. But in case anybody needed a nudge, Abrams was on hand, along with the singer Common and former US ambassador Andrew Young, an Atlanta icon. “Vote for your mama, vote for your children, vote for your children’s children,” Young implored the crowd. Then Abrams and Common marched a chanting, cheering throng a few blocks away to an early voting site.
About an hour before, just across town, a youth choir was singing Common’s “Glory,” the theme to the movie Selma, at a Black Voters Matter “Freedom Rides” early-voting celebration that stretched out over two giant parking lots. I watched three girls doing the Stanky Leg to an animated dance video while two boys caught a basketball game on a giant television next to that; around the corner a dozen toddlers rocked a bouncy house while teenagers played at a video-game trailer nearby. Comedian Chelsea Handler was taking selfies with her fans in the warm October sun. Meanwhile, the grownups were getting ready to go vote.
“We want this to be fun for the whole family,” says Black Voters Matter co-founder Cliff Albright. These Sunday events are part of the traditional “Souls to the Polls” mobilization in the black community, in which voters go to church, then get on buses to go vote at early-voting sites. Today, they’re going to church, then heading over to this celebration, where after some music and a couple of speeches, they’ll will get on buses headed for the Fulton County Government Center across town, as well as early-voting sites at the half-dozen counties that ring Atlanta. Although the mood here is festive, the undertone is anxious; each bus will have an election expert—a lawyer, a board of elections official or a trained observer—to help with any problems these early voters encounter.
Elsewhere, they’ve been encountering plenty. On the first day of early voting in rural Jefferson County, a Black Lives Matter bus was emptied of the 40 or so senior citizens it was taking to the polls, on the grounds that the group’s providing a ride to the polls constituted unlawful political activity (there is no such law). In rural Crisp County last week, a volunteer using a funeral-home vehicle to transport early voters had a couple of encounters with police; when he was finally pulled over, seven police cars surrounded him, five of them state troopers. “How do you even have five state-trooper cars in one tiny county?” Albright marveled. At Gwinnett County’s lone early-voting site on Sunday, police cars surrounded the building in what local voting advocates considered a show of intimidation.
Then there are the 53,000 voters, 70 percent of whom are black, whose registrations are in limbo because of the “exact-match” system used by Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also Abrams’ opponent in the governor’s race. Their names may or may not be on a “supplemental” list of voters at county voting sites. “But a lot of poll workers aren’t trained to look every place a person’s name might be,” said N’se Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, which registered some of the affected voters. If their names are found, they can cast a vote normally; if not, they can vote provisionally, meaning they’ll have to somehow prove they are registered after voting, in order for their vote to count. In the event of a close election between Abrams and Kemp, which is almost certain, those provisional ballots could become a legal quagmire.
“We no longer have Jim Crow, now we have Dr. James Crow, PhD, a data scientist,” Ufot jokes. “I hear people saying, well, a lot of these people will wind up voting,” Albright tells me. “Well, if you have to jump through hoops, that’s a form of voter suppression—even if in the end, you vote. Because some people won’t” get through the hoops, he added.
Just last week, Kemp was caught on tape telling a group of donors of his “concern” about the Abrams campaign’s “unprecedented” voter-mobilization efforts. “We gotta have a heavy turnout to offset that,” he told the group. Former president and Georgia governor Jimmy Carter, who’s spent his post-presidency monitoring international elections and trying to ensure fairness, asked Kemp Monday to step down. “Overseeing the election in which you are a candidate…runs counter to the most fundamental principle of democratic elections—that the electoral process be managed by an independent and impartial election authority.” But Kemp has resisted other such calls; he’s unlikely to listen to the former president.
So the onus is on groups like New Georgia Project and Black Voters Matter “to run up the score,” Ufot told me Sunday, making sure every voter gets to the polls and has support if they encounter trouble. At the “Freedom Rides” rally I got lost and wandered into a banquet room with warming tables for fried chicken and greens, alongside stacked cartons of sweet-potato pie—all waiting for the early voters when they returned via bus from the polls. “We’re trying to bring back public displays of black joy,” Ufot explained. “People used to put on their petticoats and grab a picnic” after they voted, “and we’re trying to do something like that here.”
Back at the Abrams rally, the candidate and Common led a march of 150 people just a few blocks to the local early-voting site. Along the way cars honk and pull over to snap photos—whether of Abrams or Common or both.
In the end, though, even here in downtown Atlanta, the ways of government tripped folks up a bit. The massive Fulton County Government Center is a labyrinth, but on Sunday only one of its entrances was open. We arrived at a gate that was closed, and the crowd began to scatter, with groups of two and three strategizing the best way to find the open door, which turned out to be on the exact opposite side of the building from the way we approached. “We sorta scattered,” admitted Rashaun Holliman, who works in education policy. But he was glad he’d turned out to see Abrams for the first time—and also Common, “who’s got a message black men need to hear.” His friend Ken Kemp, a school counselor (not related to Abrams’ rival), thought the rally “built momentum” that would carry Abrams to victory. As we talked, a black woman in a bright fuchsia sweater set limped past us; she hadn’t been at the rally, but at another early-polling place where she waited an hour and a half to vote. She hurried up the steps, too busy to give me her name, just ready to cast her ballot at the end of a long Sunday.
There were stories like that all over metro Atlanta this weekend. Voters in Cobb County waited three to four hours on Saturday; roughly 1,700 people voted, up from 1,000 in the 2014 midterms on the comparable Saturday. “We are trying to have won this election before Election Day,” Abrams told the Sunday rally. It’s never been done before, but to elect its first black female governor, Georgia is going to have to do a lot of things it’s never done before.