Black Youth’s Potential Electoral Power in the Georgia Senate Runoffs
The January Senate runoffs in Georgia are fast approaching. These consequential races will determine who controls the Senate for the next two years: if both seats go to the Democratic challengers, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, the Senate will be 50-50, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris as the tie-breaking vote. If either Republican candidate prevails, the Senate will remain in Republican control.
Youth of color, and especially Black youth, have extraordinary potential to be a decisive factor in these upcoming Senate races as a result of their population size and their historical support for Democratic candidates. As they were in the 2018 and 2020 general elections in the state, youth of color are a major force in the Georgia electorate. There are over 500,000 Black 18- to 29-year-olds registered to vote as of December 17, constituting one-third of all young registered voters in the state and, currently, the highest number of Black youth registered to vote in any state for which we have data. In 2020, Black youth heavily favored Democratic candidates and were a key constituency in flipping the state for President-elect Biden. But there are also barriers that particularly affect young people of color in Georgia, who will need to be engaged and mobilized in a type of election that traditionally sees lower turnout.
Young Black Voters’ Influence in 2018 and 2020
Early indications of the power of young Black voters appeared in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election, in which Democratic challenger Stacey Abrams came within 55,000 votes (less than half a percentage point) of defeating now-Governor Brian Kemp, showed the electoral power of young voters. Our analysis found that, in counties with a high proportion of youth, Abrams performed +7 percentage points better compared to her average support in counties across the state. In counties with high percentages of youth and of people of color, she did +22 points better.
Our analysis of county-level election results in the 2020 presidential election showed a similar trend, as counties with a high proportion of Black youth gave Biden +26 points stronger support compared to his state average. All in all, 90% of Black youth in the state voted for Biden, which means Black youth provided a net margin of about 200,000 votes to the President-elect. This margin vastly exceeds less than 12,000-vote margin of victory in the race, highlighting how Black youth were driving forces behind Biden’s victory.
Young Black Georgians’ support for Democratic candidates in November also extended to the Senate candidates which are going to run-off elections. In the Senate race of incumbent Republican Senator David Perdue versus challenger Jon Ossoff, 88% of Black youth favored Ossoff, compared to 31% of White youth. In the Senate special election between incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Loeffler and challenger Raphael Warnock, 83% of Black youth preferred Warnock, compared to 32% of White youth. These overwhelming preferences underscore young Black voters’ ability to shape the runoff results.
The electoral impact of Black youth is, in large part, the result of sustained efforts to engage this key constituency in order to enhance their voice and create a more equitable and representative democracy. Youth voter registration in the state (ages 18-24) has jumped by 35% in the past four years, showing that registration efforts have worked and should continue. However, the focus must be as much—or more—on having these registered voters turn out. Georgia state law facilitates voter registration through pre-registration, automatic voter registration, and online voter registration—though the state also has a strict voter registration deadline of 29 days before the election. But actually casting a ballot can be harder due to voter roll purges, decreased polling places, voter ID laws, and other voter suppression efforts.
Many of these structural barriers affect youth of color more than their white peers, a disparity that needs to be met with strong voter outreach and support. In addition to the closing of polling places, many of which were in Black communities, in a 2016 analysis we found that, nationally, youth of color were more likely to have problems with voter ID, to have trouble locating polling places close to them, or to find transportation to go vote.
The Potential Impact of “Undermobilized” Black Youth
The challenges related to mail-in voting can contribute to a pattern of “undermobilized” Black youth; meaning, young people who register to vote but do not cast a ballot. (We use the term “undermobilization” to describe young people who were registered to vote but did not cast a ballot, often because of a lack of electoral outreach and information). According to data from Catalist and the Georgia Secretary of State’s website, the registration rate for all young Georgians (ages 18-29) before the 2020 elections was one of the highest in the country in part due to the impact of the state’s automatic voter registration laws and the efforts of voter registration groups in this state. According to CIRCLE analysis, 48% of eligible youth in Georgia cast a ballot in the November 2020 election, and the 40% turnout among Black youth was substantially lower than that of white youth (55%), Latino youth (50%), and Asian youth (64%). However, even with the lowest turnout among racial/ethnic groups for which we have data, the sheer size of the Black youth population in Georgia and their overwhelming preference for Democratic candidates makes young Black voters a powerful constituency in the state–both in terms of the mobilization they do before an election and because of their vote choice.
Zooming in at the county level provides a closer look at where Black youth undermobilization may be especially high, and where outreach may be especially critical. Undermobilization rates—the percentage of young people who did not vote among youth who are registered—were especially high in smaller, rural counties in the southern part of the state. But in urban and suburban counties with lower mobilization rates, such as the counties surrounding Atlanta, the prevalence of Black youth translates to opportunities to engage thousands more young people who may not have previously voted.
When we look at the registration and voting rates of Black youth in four of the most populous Georgia counties, we find:
- Fulton and Dekalb counties, which include Atlanta and in which Black youth compose a plurality of all young people, have high numbers of Black youth who are registered to vote (around 94,000 and 71,000, respectively). The undermobilization rates in these counties are 63% and 55% respectively.
- Cobb County, an Atlanta suburb, has almost 40,000 Black youth registered to vote, and just over 20,000 voted in November: an undermobilization rate of 48%.
- In another Atlanta suburb, Gwinnett County, over 45,000 Black youth were registered to vote, and Black youth in the county turned out to the polls at an above-average rate of 55%. However, like in Cobb County, over 40% of Black youth who were registered did not cast a ballot.
Examining the undermobilization of Black youth in these four counties highlights how outreach to Black youth needs to be expanded throughout Georgia, especially within the urban, majority-Black counties that make up Atlanta and its suburbs.
Opportunities for the Runoffs and Beyond
The voter registration deadline for the Georgia Senate runoffs has passed, so the focus of campaigns and advocates in the coming weeks will focus on mobilizing voters through absentee, early in-person, and Election Day voting. Over 91,000 Black youth have requested a ballot for the runoffs as of December 21, and less than 55,000 of those ballots have been returned. By comparison, at the same time (meaning, with the same number of days to go) before the 2020 general election, over 58,000 young Black voters in Georgia had returned their absentee ballots. Further outreach to encourage young people to request and return their ballots will be crucial to ensure that strong youth turnout continues in a traditionally lower-turnout runoff election.
Youth of color in Georgia and elsewhere have long been underrepresented in and marginalized from civic life. Outreach and mobilization efforts should target these young people who have the most to gain from being contacted, since they disproportionately face more structural barriers to voting. By building relationships with youth, sharing accurate and helpful voter information, and by reemphasizing youth of color, campaigns can help write the runoffs’ narrative.
The pandemic has created new challenges to this kind of outreach, but also new opportunities, with social media and online organizing playing an increasing role. Organizations can and must use these tools to build relationships with young potential voters in order to effectively share pertinent information and encourage going out to vote.