A rising tide of African-Americans and other minorities has swelled voting rolls, shrinking whites’ share of Georgia’s electorate to historic lows.
The question now is whether they will show up at the polls, as Democrats challenge the state’s dominant Republicans in tight races for governor and the U.S. Senate.
Black voters in Georgia now make up more than 30 percent of the more than 5.1 million active voters in Georgia, according to a new analysis of the state’s registration database by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That’s almost 67,000 more black voters than were on the active rolls for the state’s previous midterm election in 2010, when voter interest historically dips because it is a nonpresidential election year.
It also comes as the number of Georgia voters overall has also increased from four years ago, when only half of the state’s active black voters cast ballots.
White voters, meanwhile, continued to decline to less than 58 percent — down from 61.6 percent in 2010. The percentage of active white voters in Georgia slipped under 60 percent for the first time in state history two years ago.
The new numbers add tension to an increasingly fraught campaign season in Georgia, where race is often a reliable predictor of political affiliation. Racial minorities in the state have traditionally voted Democratic. Whites, in turn, have solidly supported the state’s Republicans — Gov. Nathan Deal won four years ago with 77 percent of the white vote.
The key question now is how many of these voters will turn out this year to cast a ballot.
“Turnout is now the big question, especially in a midterm election,” Emory University political scientist Alan Abramowitz said. “Can Democrats get their supporters, especially minority voters, to turn out, and will the turnout reflect the composition of registered voters?”
Abramowitz, who studies American political demographics, said Democrats in Georgia generally get support from more than 90 percent of black voters who go to the polls. If the same holds true this year and the number of voters increases in correlation to their growing share of the electorate, Abramowitz said Democratic candidate for governor Jason Carter and the party’s U.S. Senate hopeful, Michelle Nunn, have a shot at victory — if they also meet their goal of winning about 30 percent of white voters.
That, however, could be an uphill battle.
It would mark a significant improvement from 2010, when Democratic gubernatorial candidate Roy Barnes won about 23 percent of the white vote.
Additionally, a number of surveys reflect considerably more enthusiasm for the election nationally among GOP supporters, although some show that trend line may be tempered in states with competitive races such as in Georgia.
The tight contests shown in polling offer blacks and other nonwhite voters the opportunity to tip the balance.
But there’s some debate over the polling done here: Some analysts think recent polls, including those done for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, may be underestimating black voters in Georgia. Pollsters typically base such estimates on historical data, but they also may factor in enthusiasm they see among respondents. But analysts question whether enough consideration has been given to the thin margins between candidates and the high number of new voters who registered this year, which the Secretary of State’s Office pegged at more than 183,000.
Among the new voters, one-third were white. More than one-third were black.
“It’s encouraging to know that Georgia’s voter rolls are reflecting the diversity that makes our state so remarkable,” state Democratic Party Chairman DuBose Porter said of the new numbers, adding that “the more people who participate in democracy, the stronger our state is for it.”
GOP leaders aren’t conceding anything. They have increased efforts to woo black voters, including hiring a minority engagement director last year.
“The Georgia Republican Party is excited that so many African-Americans are getting involved in the electoral process right here in Georgia,” state GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney said. He added the new numbers “affirm our efforts to engage, educate and empower minority voters in Georgia, and we will continue this important work in earnest even after the Nov. 4 election.”
Worth noting is that the biggest difference in active voters in Georgia came from a growing pool of voters who declined to identify themselves by race or ethnicity or instead chose to be identified as “other.”
The percentage of voters identified that way rose to more than 8.7 percent and continue a steady rise over the past four years, according the latest data available from the Secretary of State’s Office. In November 2010, those voters came under 6.2 percent. Four years earlier, it was 3.6 percent.
Georgia’s voter registration period ended Oct. 6. The analysis is based on totals as of Oct. 17.
The state’s shifting electorate mirrors the demographic growth experienced by Georgia over the past decade. The state is now home to more than 9.9 million people, according to the latest estimates through mid-2013 — many of them people of color. The migration here follows a significant expansion. Of the 1.5 million people who moved to Georgia between 2000 and 2010 — the past two major census counts — more than 80 percent were nonwhite.
Not everyone who moved here, however, has registered to vote. And even those who are registered don’t necessarily always vote, particularly in midterm elections. In 2010, for example, 66 percent of people who cast ballots were white. At the time, whites made up 61.6 percent of registered voters. In contrast, blacks made up 29.3 percent of registered voters, but only 28 percent of people who cast ballots in that midterm election were black.
“In my experience, registrations have never been the defining factor in an election,” said 13-term state Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Powder Springs. “It’s always about turnout.”
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