“We’re Building a Future Voting Culture”: How Barbara Arnwine and Others Mobilized Georgia’s Historic Win

“They threw everything at us in this state: They purged voters, cut polling hours, refused to put up drop boxes, cut polling precincts. … But the one thing they forgot: We’re unstoppable.”

"We're Building a Future Voting Culture": How Barbara Arnwine and Others Mobilized Georgia's Historic Victory
Barbara Arnwine (right) with other members of the Transformative Justice Coalition on Jan. 4 outside the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta. (@Jessica80979829 / Twitter)

Wednesday’s attempted violent coup at the U.S. Capitol marked a very dark day for the United States. But one spot of light that cannot be overshadowed: the historic nature of Tuesday’s runoff election in Georgia, made possible in large part due to Georgia organizers, Black voters, AAPI voters, Latinx voters and young voters.

Overall, more than 112,000 people voted in the runoff who did not vote in the November general election, The New Georgia Project reports. Twenty-two percent of these new voters were under the age of 25 and 40 percent were Black.

The runoff election was historic in many ways: Reverend Raphael Warnock became the first Black senator to be elected in Georgia. And Jon Ossoff defeated David Perdue, becoming the first Jewish senator to be elected in Georgia and ultimately securing a Democratic majority in the Senate.

Barbara Arnwine, president and founder of Transformative Justice Coalition, is one of the powerful forces behind the push to get out the vote in the lead-up to these monumental runoff elections.

Voice hoarse from being on the bullhorn on Election Day, Arnwine spoke to Ms. early Wednesday morning to discuss the election, what the results mean for the future of U.S. politics, and why when Black women organize and vote, everyone benefits.

Here’s what she had to say.

"We're Building a Future Voting Culture": How Barbara Arnwine and Others Mobilized Georgia's Historic Victory
“Black women—we carry this memory, we carry this devotion. We have a spiritual context that tells us that justice is an imperative,” said Barbara Arnwine, pictured here speaking at Scripps College in July 2016. (Scripps College)

Mariah Lindsay: Well, to start off, how are we looking this morning? How did the elections go?

Barbara Arnwine: Amazing. The most critical story, when people look back on 2020, in Georgia, will be the Black vote. The people of color vote: the Black vote, the Latino vote, the Asian vote. Those are going to be the stories.

But the other big story would be the youth vote. Young people turned out like we’ve never seen anywhere, any state. And it was the youth vote that drove a lot of this because it was young voters of color who showed up and showed out.

The other story that people are going to be looking at is how pervasive the turnout of people of color was throughout the state. Historically, they’ve been able to suppress the Black vote in Southwest Georgia, and most of South Georgia: Southeast, mid-South, and Southwest. But, this time, every report I’m hearing is that there was record turnout in Southwest Georgia of people of color. So that’s a real story that Black voters showed up.

Now, you got to understand why that’s important. It’s not because people have been sitting out and not wanting to vote. In Southwest Georgia, white employers have a blacklist that they use to ensure they don’t employ Black people who vote. Think about that. We’re talking about 2020. And a lot of Black people who have run for office, supported candidates get blacklisted. And they have to go and work in Alabama, work in Florida because they are blacklisted in their own counties.

So when they turn out the vote, like they did in record numbers this year, they’re saying, “We don’t care. Change gotta come. We’re not going to be deterred. We’re not going to be held back. We are going to bring the change that we need. And we’re going to take the risks that we have to take in this moment.”

And young people were like—what I love—every young person I’ve interviewed, I’ve said, “Why did you vote this time? Why did you register? Why did you participate?”

And they say without fail, “Ahmaud Arbery,” who was slain by the white vigilantes in Glen County, outside of Brunswick in Georgia. They say, “Rayshard Brooks,” who was killed by police here in Atlanta. They know these names, and they say them without even blinking. They are clear about why they turned out—because they voted for change. Social justice, they’ll tell you and I love that. Because that’s beautiful. They don’t say, “I just voted because I like X candidate.” They don’t say, “I just voted because I thought Y candidate was great or I am a member of certain party.” They tell you the issues. So I love my young voters. Go on young voters. Do it, young voters, do it.

“[Young voters] are clear about why they turned out—because they voted for change. Social justice, they’ll tell you and I love that. That’s beautiful. They don’t say, ‘I just voted because I like X candidate’ or ‘I just voted because I thought Y candidate was great, or I am a member of certain party.’ They tell you the issues. So I love my young voters.”

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Lindsay: That’s fantastic. And that’s what I love about the shift that’s happening—is people are turning into issue voters and seeing the bigger picture of elections. I would love, too, if you could speak to how women, particularly Black women and other women of color in Georgia, have really shaped this election, their role in this election.

Arnwine: Georgia has been so suppressive over the years to Black voters, and people don’t know it. But they lynched and killed Black women here. For voting. And they killed and lynched Black men for voting. They hung one [pregnant] woman from a bridge and cut out her child. That’s how vicious the state has been.

We went to Reynolds, Georgia, on Monday, to where that tragedy happened. We went to Butler, where they killed Maceo Snipes for voting. We went to Brunswick, where Ahmaud Arbery was killed February of 2020. So we treaded this water.

We want people to understand that Black women—we carry this memory, we carry this devotion. We have a spiritual context that tells us that justice is an imperative. It’s not a wish. It’s not something that may come when it comes. It’s an imperative. And that imperative can only be given life if we organize, if we get out there and educate voters, if we get out there and register people, if we show and educate people about their power, because people forget they have power, especially when people are trying to kill their empowerment. So it’s important for us to get out there and say, “No, we have power.”

And I saw that. You should have seen us in Camden, a week ago, Monday, where Black Women United turned out over 100 cars for the motorcade in little old Camden County, which sits right on the Florida border and where they were so vicious. It’s COVID, we know that the most important thing for a lot of people is being able to vote absentee. Camden County had not one—I’m talking about zero—drop boxes. So if you had an absentee ballot, you couldn’t even take it to a drop box.

Think about that. For people around the country, what that meant. And remember, these are very poor counties where people don’t have cars. And there’s no public transportation because these are very rural counties. And they have the nerve, the absolute gall to not have one dropbox. Not only that, for this runoff, not only did they have no dropboxes, Camden County had the nerve to have about four days of early voting. Not only that, in Northern Camden County, they had zero days of early voting. I kid you not. The people had to rise up and raise holy hell. And again, what did they get? One day of early voting. One day.

Now, do you see what I’m talking about people? Listen to us. This is the kind of sickness that we’ve been fighting in Georgia. That’s deliberate voter suppression. But their efforts backfired. Because Black women organized. Black Women United. We had that 100 car motorcade. We went all the way through Camden County from St. Mary’s to King’s Landing to Woodbine. And I want you to know that Black women, with the support of Black men, elected the first Black women commissioner in the history of the county. That’s the kind of power.

I was looking at the work that the Transformative Justice Coalition did. Black Voters Matter, the mighty LaTosha Brown—come on, girl. She’s been in the state doing amazing work, reaching every community they can. I’m so proud of her.

You got the amazing Nsé Ufot heading up The New Georgia Project. You got the wonderful work that’s been done by Helen Butler, who was our partner from the Georgia coalition for The People’s Agenda. Black women in leadership. Black women doing hard work, on the ground work. And through our partnership with The People’s Agenda, and Helen Butler, we made 500,000 calls into Georgia and spoke directly with voters.

We were able to help people absentee vote—because they were having all kinds of problems. We were able to find deceptive practices. They were telling people you have to re-register to participate in the runoffs. They were telling people that because you had already voted in November, you couldn’t vote for the runoff. Oh, they were just telling lie after lie after lie. And we found all kinds of deceptive practices. So much so that we had to do something that most phone banks don’t do. We had to put a lawyer, an election protection lawyer, on our phone bank. So we had to go out and recruit volunteers to be on the phone bank. We also reached over 562,000 families with postcards that we sent out. So we reached, just in those actions alone, 1 million voters.

"We're Building a Future Voting Culture": How Barbara Arnwine and Others Mobilized Georgia's Historic Victory
In the lead-up to the runoffs, voters across Georgia joined community organizers for John Lewis “Good Trouble” marches and votercades. (Courtesy of Send2Press Newswire)

And the other part of the story that’s beautiful, is that we did 29 actions here in Georgia; 25 of those were motorcades. We just went to communities. I talking about Savannah, Brunswick, Camden, Augusta. We were out in Columbus, Blakely, Bainbridge, all over DeKalb. Our people in DeKalb motorcaded for seven hours, seven hours of action yesterday. I personally did three motorcades yesterday: One in Atlanta. One in Smyrna with the Latino population. One in Clayton County that was huge, blocks long, so long that motorcade had to stop, to catch up because they had so many cars in it.

And people coming out and looking at us like, “What?” They had never seen such a thing. But also we saw people clapping because they were so grateful that somebody cared about them, that somebody said to them, “Your vote is important.” And that it wasn’t just some nebulous ad, some rally. We brought it straight to them.

I was on the bullhorn. That’s why my voice is a little hoarse, yelling, “Vote, Georgia, Vote!” I was on the phone saying, “Este dia vota!” We were doing all our outreach. And God was powerful because people were so happy.

And what I really loved was all the children. You see this button I’m wearing? We gave out thousands of them. And the kids would run to get them. And what we’re doing there is that we’re building a future voting culture. Because they’ll never forget it. And they came out and danced to the motorcade. They were so happy. It was just amazing.

And that’s something that you can’t stop. See, the one thing I say about voter suppression—they threw everything at us in this state. They purged voters, they cut polling hours, refused to put up drop boxes. They cut polling precincts, like in evil Cobb County, when they knew that they needed more places, not less. They did every kind of evil deed, threatening their organizers to put them in jail if they gave people a meal; if they gave people gloves or hand warmers when it was cold, anything. Water, while you’re standing out for three hours because you cut the voting places. You created the long lines and you’re going to punish the groups? They tried everything they could.

But the one thing they forgot, Mariah: We’re unstoppable. Talk about Black women’s mentality. We’re unstoppable. Throw what you want at us. Tell us what’s impossible. And watch us make it possible. Don’t ever underestimate a Black woman. Because we sit on the tradition. And we’re very aware of it.

People, when you hear them talk, they call the names of Harriet Tubman. They call the names of Sojourner Truth. They call the names of Mary McLeod Bethune. They call the names of Coretta Scott King. They call the names of Septima Clark. They call the names of Rosa Parks. They call the names of Amelia Boynton Robinson.

They know these names and they have inherited their spirit. And they know that we can’t be talking about what’s not possible when Harriet went through the bushes and freed hundreds of people from slavery. We know you can’t tell us what’s impossible when Rosa sat down on a bus to protest the injustice of segregation, and lost everything, had to move around. But she changed the world. And now people in China, people all over the world yell, “I am Rosa Parks.”

We know that. We understand it. And so that’s part of our mentality, that’s part of what drives us spiritually, is that we stand on a proud tradition. And we also know from our sisters, like Sojourner Truth, that there’s power in our alliances, power in our allies, power in uniting across communities.

So we enjoy working with Dolores Huerta, who was one of our phone banking queens. She just came out and did great work. We love working with Debra Messing, who came out and did the phone bank. We love working with Alyssa Milano, who came out and did the phone banking. All of these people who gave their time and their commitment we respect because it took us all.

It took every bit of work we had in our bodies, every bit of energy we could give, every voice you could give.

“Talk about Black women’s mentality. We’re unstoppable. Throw what you want at us. Tell us what’s impossible. And watch us make it possible. Don’t ever underestimate a Black woman.”

"We're Building a Future Voting Culture": How Barbara Arnwine and Others Mobilized Georgia's Historic Victory
Thanks to on-the-ground organizing from groups like Black Voters Matter, youth voter mobilization exploded during the Georgia runoffs. (Black Voters Matter, @BlackVotersMtr / Twitter)

Lindsay: Yes. It’s so inspiring. And it worked. Here we are. We’re sitting on this. We have the historic win of Raphael Warnock, the first Black senator in Georgia, and we’re looking at a great turnout for Ossoff. So how are you feeling about the results? And what can we expect moving forward?

Arnwine: On the good side: Good judges. I mean, there’s been over 200 appointments by the Trump administration of some of the most incompetent judges, incompetent people. I’m talking about people who have never been in court, never litigated a case. We see all this nonsense that we have to deal with every day.

What I really enjoy is that we now know that there will be good judges. We know that if there’s a vacancy on the Supreme Court, somebody will become our future Ruth Bader Ginsburg. You hear me? RBG, we know your spirit was with us yesterday.

I also look forward to economic relief. Families are hurting. All of us throughout the country are embarrassed to see families sitting in cars for hours trying to get a box of food. Shame on us as a nation. Shame on us that we have that much food insecurity. When I traveled the state of Georgia, that’s one thing that struck me: how much food insecurity there is here. How many internet deserts exist in the state because they won’t even build the infrastructure for the poor people to have access to the internet.

We did all of this voter education, all this voter mobilization when the huge sectors of the population have no internet access—everything the state does for voter education is on the internet, and they know that the state has horrible internet access. So anyway, so we look forward to some relief there that possibly we can get some internet access for the people.

We look forward to stimulus relief. We look forward to job creation. We look forward to gender justice. We know that Betsy DeVos did horrible stuff to Title IX. She really eviscerated its effectiveness. And women have the right to have the same opportunities educationally as men, and that includes in sports, but also women need protection from rape, sexual harassment, all of these factors. Congress has not done what it should have done for years on work force equality and pay equality. Unequal pay is a huge issue for all women, especially women of color.

Possibly, we might get the ERA passed. Wouldn’t that be amazing. So there’s all kinds of hope and possibilities that wasn’t there a day ago. And to say: Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Decades of hard work. When I was at the Lawyer’s Committee, we sued the state repeatedly. I just want people to know that this didn’t happen overnight. It was that we had to take a lot of the big roadblocks out of the way. We had to the fight the barriers. Now what they’re talking about doing on the bad side is reconstructing all of these barriers. They’re talking about getting rid of no excuse absentee ballot. So the only way you can get absentee ballots in Georgia is if you’re sick, hospitalized. If you are contagious, and a doctor gives you a statement. They want to make it so that you can only you can only absentee vote if you’re out of state on a work assignment. They want to really make it hard for voters to vote in Georgia. They’re talking about all kinds of restrictions on student voting. They’re talking about all kinds of evil. So we have to stay in this venue.

Our work’s not done. It’s not just Georgia—all over the country they’re talking about more restrictions on voting because they see the future.

Lindsay: Yeah, they saw the youth vote, they saw all these people coming out, and now they want to try to do something about it.

Arnwine: Right. And the future looks like me and you. And they don’t like that. And they want they want to keep these elitists, these corporatists, patriarchal, racist, societal structures at play. And we’re saying they all got to come down.

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Mariah A. Lindsay is an attorney and the senior executive policy fellow and coordinator of programs with the Center for Biotechnology and Global Health Policy at UCI Law. She is also a producer on the podcast "On the Issues with Michele Goodwin."