There are many who will scramble to take credit—or to diminish—the surge of Democratic votes that flipped Wisconsin and Michigan blue and are on the verge of similarly flipping Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania, states that helped elect Donald Trump in 2016. No matter how they arrived—be it through the mail, in lengthy early voting lines, or on Election Day itself, these ballots have proved instrumental in propelling Joe Biden’s march toward the White House.
But, lest anyone tell you otherwise, this victory clearly arrives on the backs of advocates and organizers who relentlessly activated voters across battleground states, registering hundreds of thousands of Americans who would prove to be the tipping point in the 2020 presidential election.
This includes former Georgia state Rep. Stacey Abrams, who eschewed running for a senatorial seat in Georgia this year to work on ensuring that this year’s elections were both free and fair. In Georgia alone, Abrams registered 800,000 voters, many of them people political pundits, consultants and reporters had previously written off as apathetic or disengaged. About 45 percent of those new voters were young people (under the age of 30)—close to half were people of color.
This after losing a devastating and hotly contested gubernatorial election in 2018 to Gov. Brian Kemp, whom many—including Abrams—accused of suppressing the vote in order to ensure his victory.
You can call it a legacy. Abrams certainly seems to.
“I began working on voter protection issues as a college student, because I’m the daughter of two civil rights activists,” Abrams told the Washington Post in July. “My father was arrested at the age of 14, helping register Blacks to vote in Hattiesburg, Mississippi.”
But more than a legacy—it is the simple, difficult and often thankless work of building a democracy in a country that has a longer history of excluding many of its citizens than politically empowering them.
Abrams reach extended far past Georgia. Her organization, Fair Fight 2020, mobilized voter outreach efforts across the nation, connecting local organizations and activists with resources and manpower to protect the vote in their communities.
As impressive as Abrams work and foresight was, she was far from alone in this effort. Organizers like Tamieka Atkins of ProGeorgia, Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project and Deborah Scott of Georgia Stand-Up played pivotal roles in mobilizing voters across Georgia, rallying them around issues like affordable housing, transit equity, economic development and labor unions.
These same efforts transformed Arizona, a former conservative stalwart. Latinx organizations like Living United for Change in Arizona (Lucha) have worked for decades to flip the state, once known for its draconian Maricopa County Sheriff, Jeff Arpaio (regarded as a precursor to Donald Trump) and SB1070, a law that required local law enforcement to ask the legal immigration status of anyone they considered suspicious.
“The 10 years of this, it’s a sign that Arizona is moving in the direction that we envisioned since 2010,” Tomas Robles, co-executive director of Lucha, told The Guardian. “You have eight-year-olds who experienced the heartbreak of watching their families stand there in fear because of SB1070. They’re now 18-year-old voters. You have a ton of people that have grown up experiencing what it is to organize and what it is to build collective political power in a state that used to have none of it.”
Earlier this week, Cuban and Venezuelan Americans in South Florida received a disproportionate amount of attention from people quick to assign blame for Trump’s stronger-than-expected election performance on “the Latino vote.” But that ignores Latinx communities across the country, including Arizona, that turned out hundreds of thousands in their states alone.
And they did it during a global pandemic.
From The Guardian:
In the pandemic, 90% of the members of Unite Here Local 11, a union representing predominantly Latinx and immigrant hospitality workers in southern California and Arizona, lost their jobs. So instead, they took to the streets, knocking on doors to campaign for Biden and Kelly, sometimes in the sweltering 120-degree Fahrenheit Arizona heat.
In July, union organizers met with epidemiologists specifically to find ways for their members and volunteers to safely continue knocking on doors. Since then, they estimated that they’ve knocked on 800,000 doors and had at least 250,000 conversations.
If there is hope for coalition-building, if there is hope for true representation in the halls of power, it will come through the efforts of organizers like Alicia Garza, head of the Black Futures Lab, which has helped to activate and educator voters on its “Black agenda” and Patrisse Cullors, who leads the Black Lives Matter PAC. It is made possible by LaTosha Brown and Cliff Albright, co-founders of Black Voters Matter, who as of September, had taken “more than 20 road trips across battleground states, driving hours in a giant vehicle they dubbed ‘the Blackest bus in America,’” talking to Black voters from Flint and Detroit, Milwaukee and Kenosha, wrote Time Magazine.
It will be sustained through smaller grassroots groups and organizers that are not yet household names: Unlock Vote WI, a campaign to restore voting rights to the formerly incarcerated in Wisconsin, or Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC), whose members beat the pavement in Milwaukee’s most marginalized neighborhoods for years to persuade Black nonvoters of their power, to educate them on the process and to point them toward the candidates that could help improve their lives.
Americans have been shown, time and time again, that democracy is a work in progress—one shaped by community meetings, town halls, door-to-door campaigns, and the enduring hope that if you show people their power, if you educate them on how best to wield it, they will use it. And they do this despite being demonized by the very people who are supposed to be their allies. More Americans voted in this election than in any other presidential election in U.S. history—around 160 million. A substantial number of them were people we had yet to hear from at the ballot box.
We know exactly who to thank.