In battleground Georgia, new voters on the rise before ‘22 election

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

20% of Georgia voters have registered since tight 2018 elections

Georgia has changed ahead of this year’s elections:

Over 1.6 million new voters over the past four years, representing more than one-fifth of all registered voters. A growing and more diverse electorate. A swing state with close and high-stakes elections.

Many of the new voters come from groups that typically support Democrats, including people of color, those under age 35 and people from other states who moved to urban and suburban areas in Georgia, according to an analysis of the state’s registration list by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Republicans say they’ve made gains among these incoming voters, with higher turnout than Democrats in this year’s primaries and larger participation from Hispanic voters.

An expanding electorate in a narrowly divided state sets up this fall’s elections after the last gubernatorial contest in 2018 was decided by fewer than 55,000 votes and the presidential contest in 2020 by about 12,000 votes.

There are now nearly 7.8 million registered voters in Georgia heading into the Nov. 8 election featuring a rematch between Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams, and a nationally watched race between Democratic U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock and Republican Herschel Walker.

Both political parties are working to increase their territory, with Republicans opening a Hispanic community center in Gwinnett County and Democrats campaigning in conservative rural areas.

“You’re never going to lose or win by a lot in Georgia. It’s too competitive. It’s going to be a close election,” said Juan Manuel Balcazar, data director for Fair Fight, the voting group Abrams founded after the 2018 election. “The voters are there. We have more Democrats in Georgia. We’ve just got to get them out to vote.”

But former U.S. Sen. Kelly Loeffler, who founded the voting group Greater Georgia, said Republicans are regaining the advantage after losing ground in recent years.

Greater Georgia has focused on reaching Hispanic voters through events at small businesses, gatherings at churches, text messages and TV ads, Loeffler said. She said Hispanic voters are concerned about inflation, jobs and crime.

“I maintain that we’re a red state,” Loeffler said. “My focus with Greater Georgia has been on identifying underrepresented voters and making sure we bring them in as part of a coalition where we have much more in common than our differences.”

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Credit: arvin.temkar@ajc.com

Voters flock to Georgia

The boom in Georgia’s electorate reflects the state’s rising population as professionals move to metro Atlanta for jobs and 18-year-olds sign up to vote for the first time. About 95% of Georgia’s eligible voters were registered in 2020, according to federal data.

Some of the most significant increases were among those who identified themselves as Hispanic or Asian American when registering, according to state voter lists.

The number of Hispanic voters grew 49% over the past four years, accounting for 4% of Georgia’s registered voters. Asian American voters rose by 43% and make up 3% of the state’s voters.

Meanwhile, white voters declined from 54% to 52% of the electorate over the past four years. Black voters held steady at 30%. In Georgia, a majority of white voters support Republicans, while Black voters overwhelmingly back Democrats. Voters don’t register by political party in Georgia.

Hispanic voters generally favor Democratic candidates, but Republicans have made inroads in recent elections in Florida and Texas. In the 2020 presidential election, voter surveys showed about 63% of Hispanic voters supported Democrat Joe Biden, down from 65% who backed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential contest.

One new voter, Laura Campos, recently became a U.S. citizen and plans to cast a ballot for the first time this November. Campos, who is from Nicaragua, said she’s excited to participate in Georgia’s hard-fought elections.

“With how tight the races have been, especially in Georgia, that has been a motivation. I hope we can choose leaders who represent our values,” said Campos, who lives in Peachtree Corners in Gwinnett County, studies at Georgia Tech and works part time at her family’s restaurant. “I can finally voice my opinions and choose leaders that reflect my beliefs.”

Georgia gained over 96,000 newly naturalized citizens between 2016 and 2020 — eight times more than the 11,779-vote margin in the 2020 presidential election, according to the National Partnership for New Americans.

“Once we get them to vote, they’re likely to be lifelong voters,” said Nancy Flores, the group’s deputy director. “That could transform the state of Georgia and the nation, and the numbers will continue to grow in the coming years.”

The actual number of Hispanic voters in Georgia is likely much larger than the 297,000 accounted for in state voter lists because many voters don’t list their race on registration forms, said Jerry Gonzalez, CEO for the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. He estimated there were 385,000 Latino voters in Georgia at the time of the 2020 election.

“We all know how tight the elections were in 2020, and that means Latinos can be a decisive factor,” Gonzalez said. “I would certainly say that 385,000 voters is a force to be reckoned with in this election cycle.”

Asian American voters have only recently been seen by candidates as a significant voting bloc that can’t be ignored, said Aisha Yaqoob Mahmood, executive director for the Asian American Advocacy Fund. About 69% of Asian American voters supported Biden in 2020, according to voter surveys.

“I don’t think most Asian American voters would say that they’re Republican or Democrat,” she said. “Candidates on both sides of the aisle really need to be thinking about what are the real issues that are going to turn our voters out in larger numbers than we’ve seen in the past.”

No blowouts

Most of Georgia’s 1.6 million new voters registered in the run-up to the 2020 presidential election. Roughly 1.2 million people registered from 2018 to 2020, and 400,000 have enrolled since then.

Meanwhile, elections have tightened and Democrats scored their first statewide victories in 14 years in 2020, with wins by Biden, Warnock and U.S. Sen. Jon Ossoff.

Much of the growth in new voters can be found in large metro Atlanta counties that supported Biden: Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett. Two of those suburban counties — Cobb and Gwinnett — consistently voted Republican until recent years.

The expansion of the electorate is now reaching into new traditionally conservative areas north of Atlanta, such as Cherokee and Forsyth counties, both of which had large increases in voter registrations.

Still, of the new Georgia voters since 2018, about 166,000 more of them live in counties where Biden won than in counties where Trump prevailed.

“The moral of the story is that I would look for fairly competitive elections in 2022, continuing the same trend lines,” University of Georgia political science professor Trey Hood said. “I’m not looking for a lot of blowouts.”

Ultimately, the outcome of this fall’s elections will depend in large part on voter turnout and candidate quality, Emory University political science professor Alan Abramowitz said. Georgia remains almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats.

The makeup of Georgia’s voter list provides information about who is registered, but not how or if they’ll vote.

“It’s pretty good news for Democrats, but how that will translate to turnout and support for candidates in November remains to be seen,” Abramowitz said. “The only thing you can say at this point is that Georgia remains a battleground state.”

More than half of Georgia’s new voters — nearly 850,000 — are under 35 years old. But turnout among young voters usually lags because they aren’t as engaged in the political process as much as older residents.

In Georgia, eligible residents are automatically registered to vote when they obtain their driver’s licenses unless they check a box indicating they don’t want to be signed up.

New voters will turn out if they’re concerned about issues that are important to them, such as democracy, taxes, education and housing costs, said Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, a government accountability organization.

“All these people are joining in democracy and getting their voices heard at the ballot box,” Dennis said. “We have to pay attention to why they want to go out and vote, and what they care about.”


Credit: Chris Day

Credit: Chris Day

Georgia election calendar

Oct. 10: Absentee ballots begin to be mailed

Oct. 11: Deadline to register to vote

Oct. 17: Three weeks of in-person early voting begins

Oct. 28: Last day to request an absentee ballot

Nov. 8: Election Day