By Char Adams
Clark Atlanta University students shuffling through the campus promenade Sept. 20, going to and from their classes, were met by a group of their peers delivering a single directive: vote.
“We wanted to make sure we were in students’ faces,” said Janiah Henry, a Clark Atlanta University senior and the chair of its civic engagement initiative CAU Votes. “We had interactive tables. We had food trucks.”
The group partnered with Greek fraternities and sororities and local nonprofit organizations for the voter registration event on National Voter Registration Day. Clark Atlanta University is one of several historically Black colleges and universities in Georgia.
“We were educating them on the midterm elections and ensuring they were able to vote in the state of Georgia,” she said. “We were able to register over 500 students and got them to pledge to vote!”
Henry, 20, said she has been supporting civic engagement since she was 13 years old, and she couldn’t have imagined just how much young Black voters would step up to transform Georgia’s political position.
Something changed in 2018. After Stacey Abrams’ failed bid for Georgia governor that year, Black college students knew they had to do something to improve Black voter turnout in the state — especially with the 2020 presidential election right around the corner. Between 2012 and 2016, Black student voting dropped by 5.3%, with young voters historically accounting for some of the lowest turnout in the country.
But in 2020, young voters accounted for 20% of the state’s votes, according to NBC News exit polls, with 90% of Black youth casting ballots for Joe Biden, the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement, or CIRCLE, at Tufts University’s Jonathan M. Tisch College of Civic Life found. Georgia’s youth voter turnout was among the highest in the south, and the young voters helped turn the historically Republican state blue.
That win can be credited, in part, to grassroots organizations like the Campus Vote Project, Rise, the New Georgia Project and others that focus on galvanizing young Black voters. Now, student-led groups are continuing these efforts as the Georgia midterms approach, keeping the momentum through everything from social media challenges to voter events at HBCU homecomings and more.
“It’s been really amazing to see. Every generation is going to be the next set of leaders, but I think my generation brings something different,” Henry said, acknowledging that ensuring voter turnout for midterm elections comes with challenges.
“Organizing around the midterms has been a bit difficult, due to people not understanding the importance of the midterms,” she said. “Oftentimes people don’t understand that their frustrations in the primaries and in the presidential elections come from not paying attention to the midterms. We try to let students know the importance of this time. That’s the message we’re giving young people in Georgia.”
It’s been no easy feat to get Black youth voter numbers up. To start, voting rights advocates needed to understand why Black students weren’t going to the polls. The Campus Vote Project, through its HBCU Legacy Initiative, partnered with the NAACP Youth and College Division to publish a 2022 report that identified multiple barriers that stood in the way of Black students at HBCUs voting. These included a lack of funding and administrative support for civic engagement efforts, inconsistent outreach from political parties, and misinformation among students.
In response to the report, organizers began speaking to young Black voters with a targeted approach, through social media challenges, livestreams with Black leaders, campus tours to encourage voting and voter drive events at HBCU homecomings. Along with voter registration events — filled with games, prizes, food and music — and online engagement, organizers have also bolstered more practical outreach, working to make voting more accessible for students.
“We’ve been working to get early voting sites on campuses,” Ciarra Malone, the Georgia coordinator for the Campus Vote Project, said. “That’s super important because when you think about students, you think about their course load and work schedules, and oftentimes they’re not able to go to the precinct designated for them from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. So providing access to campuses is a very big deal.”
Malone, who graduated from Kennesaw State University in 2020, said the group has even worked to provide Uber codes and other transportation to polling sites for students. She added that providing students information on where to vote and how to register, how to fill out absentee ballots, developing election plans, and researching ballot issues is key to improving youth voter turnout.
“It’s trying to provide students with as much information as possible, because disinformation is also a really big barrier to overcome,” she said.
In 2020, the New Georgia Project emerged as one of the most fervent youth voter support groups. The organization, founded by Abrams, focused on new, innovative ways to reach voters, like sneaker giveaways and Twitch livestreams packed with celebrities. Developing fresh strategies has been key to mobilizing young Black voters, said Alana Moss, a researcher with the New Georgia Project.
“We understand we have to meet young voters where they are,” Moss, 25, said. “By finding creative ways to reach them, is how we’ll be able to accomplish our goals. We’re trying to connect culture to voting.”
The organization has united schools like Spelman College, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University in its Georgia Campus Voting Challenge, an initiative that encourages colleges and universities in the state to increase voter participation and civic engagement. This is paramount, Moss said, as the midterm elections approach and young people voice their opinions on myriad issues.
She said the group’s research has shown that the George Floyd protests of 2020 further spurred the generation to civic engagement, while racial justice remains an issue on the ballot that young voters are passionate about. Moss also highlighted gun violence, reproductive rights and health care as among the issues Black youth are prioritizing ahead of the midterms.
“Our team is aggressively out in the community, knocking on doors and making sure we’re having community conversations,” Moss said. “We’re continuing to monitor the polls to see the issues people care about and the barriers they’re experiencing so we can combat those, like hiring poll monitors.”
What’s on the ballot
Georgia has become a competitive battleground state in the midterm elections, with voters set to decide between Democratic Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker for senator and Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Gov. Brian Kemp for governor.
Youth voter turnout has been increasing across the country since 2016, according to Vlad Medenica, associate director for GenForward, a national survey that prioritizes young voters. He said mobilization was a key factor in Georgia’s groundbreaking youth voter turnout in 2020. Now, he added, “that’s the big question mark this year, whether or not the political parties can really speak to these voters and motivate them to cast a ballot.”
When it comes to young voters, Medenica said, the issues they’re most concerned with are the same ones plaguing society more largely.
“In our most recent survey, inflation was the issue that was flagged as most important to young adults, including young Black adults,” Medenica explained. “Inflation is something that has been impacting all of us, especially younger people as they’re dealing with higher prices at the grocery store, at the gas pump, and paying rent as well. Young voters in general are pretty sophisticated. They’re thinking about the things that impact their lives.”
He added: “In second and third place, especially among young Black voters in particular, were gun violence, abortion and reproductive rights, which are big issues in general. But they are especially important to young Black voters nationally.”
Georgia is one of several states that implemented severe abortion restrictions after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark Roe v. Wade in June. A federal appeals court in July overturned a lower court ruling and allowed a restrictive abortion law that bans most abortions once a “detectable human heartbeat” is present to take effect in the state.
Although new polling shows Abrams struggling to close the gap with Kemp and Warnock leading in a tight race against Walker, 2021 may be an indicator of what the polls can expect from young Black voters. Young people in Georgia, ages 18 to 29, voted primarily for Democratic candidates in the 2021 Georgia Senate runoffs, voting 64% for Warnock, according to CIRCLE. More than 90% of young Black voters backed Democrats in that election.
Now, as organizers work to mobilize voters for the midterms, advocates say it’s important that Black students, like those at HBCUs, are seen as an important, necessary voter bloc, rather than a group to exploit for political gain.
“They’re very much active participants, full participants in the civic process,” said Dylan Sellers, manager of the Campus Vote Project’s HBCU Legacy Initiative. “It’s not just remembering that they exist when it comes time for voting, when you’re looking for a Black population. It’s treating them like full partners and seeing them as part of current society.”