A Collaboration Campaign – 5 Observations From 8 Days On The Front Lines In Georgia

Summary: We drove over 3,000 miles last week from Boston to Atlanta, Jonesboro, Ellenwood, McDonough, Riverdale, Montgomery, Griffin, Lagrange, Oxford and Covington, Georgia and back home.  We travelled south to work door-to-door canvassing to help the Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff win their runoff races to represent Georgia in the US Senate.  The bulk of our time was invested in “curing” rejected ballots – mail-in ballots that had been rejected because the voter didn’t include the requisite ID or the Board of Elections reviewer decided that their signature did not match the one on file.

We realized that voter suppression was not only real, but much more insidious and painful than imagined.  Warnock and Ossoff won because their campaigns and the efforts of the Georgia Democratic Party were far superior to those of the Republicans, and because Stacey Abrams and her 2018 gubernatorial campaign manager Lauren Groh-Wargo provided the strategy and the intellectual, implementational and inspirational leadership to win the Georgia races and  flip the US Senate.  We also experienced the highs and lows of Wednesday, January 6th.  We woke to see data convincing us that both Warnock and Ossoff would win, were moved and inspired by the words and Memorial of Dr. King next to the  Ebenezer Baptist Church and then watched the horrific events unfold at our Nations Capitol throughout the afternoon and evening. As heartbreaking as those images and acts were, we remain optimistic about our future given both the impact of the leadership and work we saw in Georgia and the words of Dr. King who reminds us that “the moral arc of the universe bends slowly, but it bends in the direction of justice.”

 “We came to Georgia to do GOTV work, we were blessed to have the opportunity to do civil rights work.”

The 5 Observations from 8 Days on the Front Lines in Georgia

One.  Voter suppression is real, more insidious and painful than I imagined.

We drove to Georgia expecting to do traditional get out the vote (GOTV) work – door knocking and calling to make sure Warnock and Ossoff voters voted before 7 PM on January 5th. Fortunately, we were asked to join the rejected ballot “cure” team.  Unlike Massachusetts and many other states, Georgia requires those residents who vote by mail to include a photocopy of a valid form of ID and to sign their mail-in ballots. When county election officials receive mail in ballots, they “pre-process” them by both making sure a valid form of ID is included and make the more subjective call of whether or not the signature matches one on file for the voter.

What surprised us (and in hindsight should not have) was the homogeneity of the homes we visited.  All were in what appeared to be very low-income areas and every voter (or family member) we talked to was Black.  The photo above is representative of the homes we visited on our daily cure canvass.  The majority of the ballots we worked to cure were for “incorrect signature” and the remaining for “valid ID.” At night, we attended virtual team meetings and shared our experiences with other canvassers.  Some of the stories were maddening, including a voter who had suffered a stroke and whose signature could not possibly match the one on file.  Others needed help getting ID’s or proof of address to cure their ballots.  From the work we have done with low income families over the past 2 decades, we knew that many low income Americans are forced to move every year – and some multiple times  a year.  One option to cure a rejected ballot was to email the required affidavit and ID to local election boards.  We doubted that the homes we visited had the requisite technology to do so.  Another was to drive the documents to the county board of elections, but again, many disenfranchised voters either couldn’t drive or lacked access to a vehicle. Contrast this experience with our experience voting by mail in Massachusetts – no ID required and no ballots were rejected for not matching a signature on file with the state.

The last numbers we received were that 3,000+ ballots had been rejected and our statewide team had successfully cured and re-enfranchised over 2,000 votes.

Two. Ossoff and Warnock won for these reasons:

  • Stacey Abrams and Lauren Groh-Wargo provided the “3 I Leadership – Intellectual, Implementational and Inspirational Leadership” and playbook to build and activate a coalition of organizations to identify, register and deliver the votes needed to win the Senate races.  And to make sure every vote was counted.

On September 9, 2019, Stacey Abrams, the 2018 Democratic Nominee for Governor of Georgia and Lauren Groh-Wargo, her former Campaign Manager, published The Abrams Playbook: The Strategy and Path to Victory in 2020.  The Abrams Playbook is a must read for political junkies,  filled with high impact analysis and graphs that lay out the case for investing in voter ID, persuasion and GOTV and proactively fighting voter suppression operations.  One representative example – although she narrowly lost the race for governor, the duo discovered that Abrams won 65-35% among those voters who had moved to Georgia in the 10 years preceding election day. One of my favorite lines from the playbook:

“When analyzing next year’s political landscape and electoral opportunities, any less than full investment in Georgia would amount to strategic malpractice.”

Abrams sent the Playbook to every major 2020 Democratic presidential campaign and tirelessly advocated for the DNC to increase their investment in Georgia for both the Presidential and Run-Off Senate elections.  Her efforts were successful as she catapulted Georgia “from Doug (Kamala Harris’ husband) to Obama!” as detailed in this great article from Politico.

  • Excellent communications, use of data and technology like the MINIVAN app to direct and track volunteer canvassers.

Our experience as cure canvassers was nearly flawless and much better organized and efficient than similar 2020 work we did in Massachusetts, Wisconsin and Maine.

County election officials sent a list of rejected voters and the reasons for doing so to the Secretary of State’s office daily.  The Georgia Democratic party data and analytics team then downloaded this information every morning and divided the rejected voters into “turf” – GOTV lingo for a list of households for a volunteer to canvass.  We signed up online to work one or more 3 hours shifts each day we were in Georgia, then checked in with the captain of our “virtual field office” or VFO who gave us a list number to input into the MINIVAN app.  Quickly downloaded, the MINIVAN  list provided maps and addresses of the homes we were to canvass, as well as the voter’s information, reasons for rejecting ballots, and contact history noted by Democratic field organizers.

We were also given “literature drop” addresses where we picked up clearly written and detailed instructions sheets explaining how to cure specific ballot rejection issues – separate pages for rejected signatures or missing ID’s.  Georgia volunteers from around the state placed these forms in plastic bins on their porches along with homemade cookies, bottled waters and handmade signs thanking us for canvassing.  Access to VFO Captains, organizers with access to the Secretary of State’s database and others was always only a call or text away.  From what we could tell and were told by those on the ground in Georgia – Republicans had nothing close to the Democrats cure and GOTV operations.

  • The campaigns turned the challenges of running a virtual campaign with limited in-person contact because of COVID-19 into an opportunity and enlisted volunteers and team leaders from across the country. I believe everyone of our VFO Captains were located out of state – working from Massachusetts, to South Carolina, to Chicago, Utah, Iowa and California.
  • They benefited greatly from the timing of the runoff election. Because the Georgia runoff election was “the only game on,” the campaigns enlisted experienced staff and volunteers (like ourselves) who had worked on other virtual campaigns in 2020.  These activists needed little training and were already familiar with using the MINIVAN app, the protocols of door knocking during a pandemic and coordinating with team captains they never met in person.
  • Strong, consistent, positive branding and communications.

Much has been written about the amount of money spent on advertising in the 2021 Georgia Runoff election and we can tell you form first hand experience that at least 90% of the TV advertising appeared to be campaign related.  Although the Democratic candidates’ billboard and yard sign share dominated those of the Republicans – at least in the areas we canvassed – TV share seemed roughly equal.  What wasn’t equal was the tone of the TV advertising.  Loeffler in particular ran some of the most vicious negative advertising I have ever seen in my decades observing, studying and developing political communications.  Perdue and his independent expenditure supporters also invested heavily in negative advertising.

The Democratic candidates’ messaging was much more positive, with Ossoff focusing on “HEALTH JOBS JUSTICE” AND Warnock emphasizing their GOTV message with “The Vote Is Sacred” and “Get Up & Put On Your Shoes” during the last two weeks of the campaign.  And Donald Trump’s incredibly negative words and antics attacking the credibility of Georgia’s vote count clearly contributed to this dichotomy and did nothing positive to deliver Republican voters. Democratic campaign mastermind James Carville called Loeffler the “the worst candidate I’ve ever seen” in this Vanity Fair article.

Three. Wednesday, January 6th is a day we will never forget:

  • We woke early to the news that both Warnock and Ossoff would win their races.
  • We visited Ebenezer Baptist Church, MLK’s birthplace, tomb and the fountains, gardens and read words promoting the importance and power of Nonviolent Resistance.
  • Walking back to our car, my younger sister called to tell us about the violent mob storming the Nation’s Capitol.
  • Like most of America, we spent the rest of the day watching the events play out on TV.

Four. Wednesday evening, while driving to meet up with an old friend I was struggling with the juxtaposition of our great and terrible experiences throughout the day. I was comforted by remembering two invaluable lessons Dr. King taught us:

“We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today. We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now. In this unfolding conundrum of life and history, there ‘is’ such a thing as being too late. This is no time for apathy or complacency. This is a time for vigorous and positive action.”

“We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

Five.  I will forever be grateful that we had the privilege, the opportunity, and the honor to participate in this historic election.

And we could not agree more with the words of Senator-Elect Reverend Raphael Warnock from his first sermon after the election at Ebenezer Baptist Church on Sunday Morning, January 10th:

 “… there is still a whole lot of work to do.”