Field notes from Georgia’s Senate Election

Russell Baruffi Jr.
5 min readDec 30, 2020

I’m curing rejected Democratic provisional mail-in ballots in Georgia leading up to the January 5 runoff. Sharing learnings here as I go.

December 30, 2020

Overwhelming consensus here is that Black voter engagement and turnout is the reason GA flipped blue in the general election. Georgia’s Black population is heavily concentrated in urban and suburban regions [Atlanta (51% Black, population 500K), Augusta (65%, pop. 198K), Columbus (46%, pop. 195K), Savannah (55%, pop. 136K), Albany (71%, pop. 72K)], and the urban turnout numbers for 2020 are striking:

That turnout is in part a backlash against national GOP policies, including the disastrous federal and state COVID response, and the naked hostility to the civil rights demands that took form in 2020 as Black Lives Matter protests, but is also the result of local needs and local recent history.

In 2018, Stacey Abrams lost the 2018 Georgia Governor’s race to Brian Kemp, who was at that time the Secretary of State charged with administering the very election that he wanted to win. That story is well-told but is so immediately relevant today that it warrants re-telling (in another post). Both before this election but then re-energized by the bald-faced voter suppression of the 2018 election, Fair Fight, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, and less-often named organizations like the Black Male Voter Project, Black Men Build, People’s Agenda, and Woke Vote, played the long game of talking with voters on the ground, hearing their needs and concerns, tailoring messages and policy proposals to meet those needs, and convincing disaffected and disenfranchised citizens that their vote has power.

Recent events added fuel to this fire. In February, two White men in Brunswick GA chased a 25 year old Black man Ahmaud Arbery in a pickup truck, shooting and killing him. Though a third man captured the incident on a video that he provided to police on the day of the murder, no arrests were made until 74 days later, when the video was leaked and public outcry demanded action. This, combined with nationally prominent extra-judicial killings of Black people (Breonna Taylor, George Floyd), led to an upwelling of voter registration and voter engagement among Black and urban voters, pushing out Brunswick District Attorney Jackie Johnson and sending Georgia’s 2020 electoral votes to Biden.

The past several years of voter engagement built the capacity for the 2020 wins. You can find details on the organizations that did this grassroots work and how to donate at this link. These organizations, in addition to the GA Democrats, Fair Fight, the New Georgia Project Action Fund are the places to donate right now.

December 29, 2020

Georgia’s system is set up to have rigorous verification — any mailed ballot whose signature does not exactly match the signature provided at voter registration is made “provisional”, which means that their vote won’t count until the voter provides the necessary proof and “cures” or “rescues” their ballot. Each county is required to immediately notify voters whose ballots are in provisional status, but they fail for any number of reasons, so we have a lot of voters out there who don’t know to cure their ballot or won’t follow through with the necessary cure steps. Today I tracked down a 69-year old Black man and Georgia native who I’ll anonymize as Mr J. Though a lifelong Atlanta native, Mr. J voted for the first time in his life during the 2020 general election. Inspired by the conviction that Black voters made a difference, he voted again by mail during the runoff, but due to a signature mismatch, his ballot got stuck in provisional status. He did not receive notification by the county.

It took me an hour to track Mr. J down, convince him over intercom outside his housing complex of the need to cure his ballot, find him in person inside the complex, and then earn enough trust to use the online ballot-curing tool on my mobile device to upload his ID and matching signature. Mr J had written his signature a bit outside the scanned field when getting his driver’s license, so most but not all of his signature was visible on his ID, which might be the reason for his ballot’s rejection. Research has shown that minority and young voters absentee ballots are systematically rejected at much higher rates, often attributable to signature match issues but also likely due to ongoing discrimination thats difficult to document.

December 28, 2020

The fact that Georgia is now having a runoff election for both Senate candidates is itself the product of segregationist policies intended to limit Black political power. In 1963, Georgia state representative Denmark Groover put up the rule with the stated intention of limiting Black voting power; rationale being that Blacks might coalesce around Black candidates while the larger White voting block would be more prone to split across many White candidates, and a runoff election would give Whites the chance to form a unified block. Most former Confederate states have this type of system (AL, AR, GA, LA, MS, OK, SC, TX), and all but two of the states with runoff systems are in the former Confederacy.

Whether this policy has the generalized effect of suppressing black representation today, given changes in political coalitions, is debated. Find more details in this reporting by Vox. But it is obvious from the history that even our point of departure is steeped in racism while being race-neutral on its face, and this observation is a theme across voter suppression policies.

But it is clear that the policy achieved its intended result in 2020: Reverend Raphael Warnock, the only black candidate, is required to fight twice for a Senate seat that he would have won outright in any state outside the Confederacy. The policy also gave the GOP the chance to pressure-test the relative strength of two white candidates against their Democratic opponent in the context of general election dynamics, data of priceless value that is not possible during a party primary. It is as though Rocky had to beat both Apollo Creed and Ivan Drago, and then had to go back up against Apollo Creed in order for his win to count.

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Russell Baruffi Jr.

electric power, business, environmental economics, climate policy