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CEO Of New Georgia Project On 'Aggressive' Voter Participation Efforts

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The results of Georgia's double Senate runoff on Tuesday could - could - define the next few years in Washington. The two Republican incumbents, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, will try to hold onto their Senate seats against Democratic challengers, the Reverend Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff. The runoff was triggered after no candidate in either race won more than 50% of the vote in the November election.

The significance goes far beyond those two seats, though, because the balance of power in the Senate is at stake. If Democrats win those seats, there'd be a 50/50 split in the Senate, and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast any tie-breaking votes. The Republicans need to hold onto one of the Senate seats in order to retain control of that body.

With such high stakes, as you can imagine, there's been a huge effort and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on voter outreach. So we're going to spend the next few minutes talking to two people who are trying to reach voters in Georgia. We'll begin with Nse Ufot. She is the CEO of the New Georgia Project. That is a nonpartisan group working to register and engage Georgia voters in the civic process, especially traditionally underrepresented groups such as younger voters and racial minorities. And she is with us now.

Nse Ufot, thank you so much for joining us.

NSE UFOT: Oh, absolutely. Happy to be here.

UFOT: So your organization is nonpartisan, as I said, but it's focused on people who, despite being eligible to vote, have not been participating at their full potential. And your group is believed to have registered more than 500,000 voters in Georgia. You're one of the groups credited with helping Biden win Georgia and making those two Democratic candidates be competitive. So what's been your focus from November up to now?

UFOT: So we've run essentially our traditional campaign, but on an aggressively truncated timeline, right? So in the immediate aftermath of the November 5 general election, we immediately went into what we call ballot curing, right? So there are tons of people with provisional ballots and mail-in ballots that were on the verge of being rejected for a number of reasons. And we would knock on their door and say, hey, we have reason to believe that your ballot is going to be rejected if you don't take your ID down to the county office, if you don't fill out this affidavit, if you don't go there and find your envelope, et cetera.

And then, immediately after ballot curing, we went into voter registration and registered about 7,000 young people and people of color across the state. And then after the voter registration deadline on December 7, we immediately went into sort of get-out-the-vote mode because early voting started December 14. And as it has been reported now across the country, we have blown through all kinds of turnout records for participation and runoff elections in Georgia. So we've been a little busy...

(LAUGHTER)

UFOT: ...Trying to make sure that as many people as possible show up again to vote in these runoffs.

MARTIN: Well, I was going to ask about that because, as you just said, you've blown through all of these previous records for early voting. But do you have a sense of whether the people who are voting early are the people you're particularly interested in, which is people who traditionally have not voted?

UFOT: Yes. We are looking at something like - we've cracked the 30% threshold for Black voters. Over 30% of the people who've shown up to vote early are African American voters. I would also add that we are looking at 115,000 people who voted in the runoff who did not vote in the 2020 general election. And over half of them are people of color. And about half of them are voters under the age of 40 - so between the ages of 18 and 39. So those are folks who did not vote in November.

MARTIN: And I was curious about, what do you consider your best argument? Because one of the byproducts of an ugly campaign is that it makes - it gives some people a headache. I mean, they just feel like they don't want to be involved at all. I mean, it has...

UFOT: Right.

MARTIN: ...Traditionally had the effect of turning some people off, particularly people...

UFOT: Right.

MARTIN: ...Who don't feel that confident necessarily in their own judgment, or they find the whole thing very disturbing, or they find it frightening because they feel like, well, gee, if I get involved, am I going to be a target of this? So what's your best argument to people for why they should power through all that, even if it is upsetting?

UFOT: I hope this doesn't sound like a cop-out to you, but we have a number of best arguments, right? So we have our colorblind conservatives, right? Like, these are folks who are often people of color, often Black folks, who are, like, you know, race has not had an impact on how I experience success in this country, et cetera. So we're talking to them about the power of their vote. We are talking to them about their power to decide, right - that all eyes are on Georgia for a reason, right?

There are voters who are moved by the history argument, right? That with this particular vote, that it is quite possible that not only will they have made Kamala Harris the first woman, the first Black woman, the first Asian woman to be the vice president of the United States, but they also could make her the most consequential vice president in the history of the institution, given all of what is at stake and the role of the vice president as a tie-breaking vote in the United States Senate as president of the Senate.

So some folks are persuaded by the history argument. There's also the Mitch better have my money (laughter) caucus, right - people who are watching the government play games with their relief - with COVID relief and just playing politics - Loeffler and Perdue and voting for the stimulus.

But having to explain that if Mitch McConnell is still majority leader in the Senate, then it makes the Loeffler and Perdue vote moot because it is Mitch McConnell who is in opposition to the $2,000 stimulus, right? So the idea is that because we've been having conversations, our best message depends on who we're talking to.

MARTIN: And so before we let you go, it's been said repeatedly that this particular election, this runoff, isn't about - isn't a persuasion election. It's a turnout election. It's not about getting people to sort of see an argument differently or to see these candidates differently or see the issue differently. It's just about getting your people out to vote, depending on who your people are. Do you agree with that?

UFOT: Yes, 100%. I mean, I think that there are people who are going to be persuaded. And so, I mean, I - first of all, I don't deal in absolutes, right? But I very much agree with that framing. I agree with that position because that has been our experience - that in this particular moment, people have their jerseys on in a lot of ways. And so, again, it is the nature of battleground state politics. It's the nature of swing state politics. But overall, yes, I agree. It is a turnout election in all of the ways that I can think of.

MARTIN: That was Nse Ufat, CEO of the New Georgia Project. That's a nonpartisan group that helps people in that state register and participate in elections with a particular focus on people who have been traditionally underrepresented.

Nse Ufat, thank you so much for talking with us. And I do hope we'll talk again.

UFOT: Same here. Thank you so much. Take care. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.