Highlighting the work of organizers and democracy defenders, protecting and expanding access to the ballot is critical to moving our communities forward. While voter suppression remains a concern in many states, organizations like the New Georgia Project and MOVE Texas are helping people fully participate in democracy. Recognizing the power of those often left behind by traditional political campaigns, these organizations are reimagining the culture of voting and civic engagement. Today’s conversation features Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project, and MOVE Texas‘ Communications Director Charlie Bonner.
Nse Ufot, CEO of the New Georgia Project
Anoa Changa: With less than a week to go, six days and counting until the end of the official election period, just thinking back to like 2018—or even 2014 when NGP first launched—and where we’ve come; how does it feel now to be at this moment with, like, all of the events this year? And just all the things that are going on leading into this final throw down with the 2020 election? I mean, are you surprised that it’s happening like this?
Nse Ufot: I am not, because these were our plans, right? We move with intention. And it was very much a part of our long term vision to build a Georgia where there are no safe seats, where every vote gets counted, [and] where all communities are represented. Like this was the plan. So I’m very pleased to see where we are, and I’m thinking about 2020 and what participation looks like, what hurdles to participation are, [and] what barriers to participation will exist in the 2022 and 2024 elections. But not surprised. Turnout is insane. We’ve been breaking records every day. And I think part of it is that if you treat people [with respect], if you talk to people, and you’re honest with folks about the challenges on the road ahead—but you also give people an opportunity to dream about what our world can look like—then I think that you see what we’re starting to see now. At this point in 2016, 199,000 Georgians under 40 had voted already now. We’re over 600,000 Georgians under 40. Same point in the cycle. It’s extraordinary. I’ve maintained for a long time that young people and people of color are going to save democracy.
Changa: Absolutely. I mean, just speaking about the work that has been going on leading up to 2020, I appreciate what you said about saving democracy. Can you talk a little about the value New Georgia Project has put on building intentionally with voters under 40 and voters of color? Like what’s the secret sauce? What is the magic behind it? I’m being super sarcastic right now, but there’s this idea that it is SO unheard of and that NOBODY expected that anyone other than white voters could be the key to clutching democracy.
Ufot: It’s because Black voters specifically, and young voters, who have been intentionally kept out of our democracy. So when we look at a place like Georgia, and particularly Middle Georgia in the heart of Georgia’s rural Black belt, the only reason that there are 100,000 eligible Black voters who were on the rolls and didn’t vote is ’16 and ’18 is because campaigns have done a really poor job of talking to, directly investing in, [and] mobilizing Black voters. We didn’t know about the widespread voter suppression, rampant voter suppression, how long it’s been happening, how sophisticated the tactics that they use are, and how they all sort of combined to make this scheme.
We launched the new Georgia project in 2013/2014. The original idea was we that we were going to register all these people, be smart about how we talked to them about it, and then they’re gonna get on the voter rolls, they’re gonna show up to vote, and we’re gonna change Georgia. Yay! That did not happen. And it did not happen because of rampant voter suppression.
We are in this moment that we’re in right now because of a lot of conversations about who is a citizen, and whose vote matters. And like, who gets to be a part of our decision making to build the better Georgia, [to] build a Georgia of our dreams. We’re in the situation we’re in now, because it has always been a fight, to have the so to have our democracy, to have our elections, to have the vote, go to as many people as possible. This country started with the idea that the only people who were eligible to vote in our elections were white men who owned land. Every group that has gained access to the franchise up to this point has been the result of organizing; it has been the result of a fight. The 19th amendment, there were 18 amendments before the 19th amendment. It was a 100 year battle to get women the right to vote. And what you’re actually seeing is this rhetorical gap that we are working to close, so that the reality of people’s voting experience in Georgia matches how we talk about the greatest democracy on earth.
Changa: It has been really inspiring to me the way NGP does work with the infusion of culture, into the organizing into the engagement. I’m just reminiscing about that GLOW Vote shirt you have on right now. Just like the culture experiences, but it’s authentic, It’s not hokey. It’s not Diddy ‘Vote or Die’ all up in your face. It’s really authentic. It’s really embracing folks. And meeting them where they are. Talk to me a little bit about your work, this cycle, bringing joy and culture into the organizing and really trying to reach younger voters and voters of color.
Ufot: What we want to change the culture of elections. We want to change the culture of voting. We need to lean into culture in order to do so. What are the things that we care about? What’s the music that we listen to? What’s the food that we eat? And I think that it’s really important to recognize that cultural shifts take time. One of the things that we’re thinking about right now in this moment is around vote-by-mail. And the work of getting older Black folks to fully embrace vote-by-mail is absolutely going to be culture work. Right? You’re talking about people that lived through Jim Crow. And who stand in line saying hi to [their] neighbors. Putting on [their] voting outfit? Getting your sticker, right? That it is not just the act of participating in our elections, but there’s a culture to the way that people participate in our elections. [They] bring the grandbabies. Like it’s a whole thing. And so I think that we don’t see the adoption rates amongst older Black voters. And older voters, particularly older Black voters because the work of changing and shifting that culture has not happened yet.
I think when we started doing culture work, and particularly around gaming, people would look at us like I don’t understand. Help me understand what gaming has to do with voting. And we want to be on people’s phones, right? We want to talk to young people. We want to talk to people of color. Around 65 percent or 75 percent of American households have someone that considers themselves a gamer in it. Like, obviously, we want to talk to 75 percent of American households about democracy, about our elections, about minimum wage, about Medicare for all about climate change.
We’re going to be on the front page of Twitch on election day! You know, we’re streaming with our homies. I’m terribly excited.
So Adrienne Marie Brown—who I stan, I stan a cultural organizer—says that all organizing is the work of science fiction. And so community organizing, electoral organizing, climate organizing, RJ organizing, all of it is science fiction. Because we’re all working to build a world that doesn’t currently exist. That only exists in our minds. Right. So you know, defund the police is the work of science fiction, but like so was interracial marriage. So was the concept of bodily autonomy, right? Like there was a time before Roe vs. Wade. And so I think that science fiction, video games, steam, seems super organic and natural in my mind when in terms of people who we need to bring to the table when we’re talking about building the world that we want to live in on the other side of this.
Charlie Bonner, Communications Director with MOVE Texas
Anoa Changa: I really appreciate you again for taking time to chat today. I’m based in Georgia. I feel like Texas and Georgia are simpatico in terms of how the people doing this work knew it was possible, even if the rest of the country didn’t.
Charlie Bonner: Yeah, these turnouts are really surprising. It just means our work is working. Everything we’ve done worked, and that’s a good thing. We shouldn’t be surprised.
Changa: I definitely understand the challenges and the ecosystem y’all are working in and have been working in for several years now. Can you just talk to me a little bit just about MOVE Texas, and just lay some of the framework for the work that y’all have been doing over the past several years?
Bonner: MOVE actually started as a student organization, at the University of Texas at San Antonio in 2013. A couple of students got together and really saw how low voter turnout was in San Antonio, especially amongst millennials at that time. [Then] the youngest voting group. Just in their first year on campus, they were able to register 1,000 voters, which is incredible. And in registering those thousand voters, they were able to flip a city council seat. Just by building up the power of students in this community, in doing their bit to connect with their peers, they were able to build real political power.
MOVE went on to start campus chapters all over San Antonio, became a San Antonio based nonprofit, at one point in time in San Antonio elections, we registered like a third of all the voters that were showing up in municipal elections. At the beginning of 2018, we took that same model statewide. We had about $100,000 and two staff members at the beginning of 2018. Right now we have about $4 million and about a staff of 30 full-time folks all across the state, really working to engage young people, and focus on those kinds of bread and butter issues of democracy that sadly are often out of reach for a lot of people in a voter suppression state.
Changa: I really appreciate hearing the origin story, and just finding out that it grew out of student organizing is just so crucial to where we are right now. I know there’s been a lot of shifting for so many of our folks across the country because of the pandemic. How has it been with organizing and doing work this election cycle? You know, with the considerations around the pandemic and some of the other institutional barriers that have presented themselves as a result?
Bonner: Yeah. Well as you said, so many folks across the country really have to adapt and change the ways in which we organize. One particularly difficult issue in Texas, is that we’re one of only nine states that don’t have online voter registration. So when the pandemic began, we saw a dramatic decline in the number of people accessing voter registration. In Texas most folks get registered when someone puts a clipboard in our hands on a college campus or at a big concert, the kind of things we’re not supposed to do anymore. Or at the DMV, which had months long waits because of COVID-19 and social distancing. So many people weren’t getting registered. Then the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement happened following the death of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, and sadly, so many others—and we saw things start to change. People started getting registered, getting their friends registered, not just at the protest, but everywhere. By every metric that we attract social media donations, registrations engagement, all of it dramatically exploded as a direct result of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I think the turnout we’re seeing today, in large part, is a testament to that organizing to what happened this summer. We had to get creative about the ways in which we were registering folks. And so we did kind of two things. One, we built out a system where folks could request a form be mailed to them. In case you don’t have a printer, we paid postage in case that was a barrier, anything like that. Many people used that service to request a form, mail it in and get it [in] there before the deadline. We worked with creative partners on ad campaigns and every different way we could think of to get that link in front of as many people as possible, so that they could still access it in the middle of a pandemic. And then on top of that, we mailed out about 400,000 voter registration forms just across the state. Then we called every single one of those potential voters, and walked them through the process of getting that form back in. So through that we were able to register more than 50,000 young people across the state this year, which was actually our pre-COVID-19 goal. So we’re really proud that even with all of the barriers our organizers were still able to meet that kind of ambitious goal.
Changa: That is also so inspiring. Despite all of the challenges, all the issues that were present and dealing with the election you all were still able to make your pre-pandemic goal.
Bonner: I cried big tears, I cried.
Changa: I just think about how earlier on there were all these articles lamenting the decline [of voter registrations]. We were behind in terms of voter registration nationwide. But we’ve seen you know that grit and just the sheer will of our folks to get it done anyway. [And now] we’re seeing these amazing turnout numbers. Can you talk to me some more about MOVE’s work in actually shifting people from registering to vote to showing up at the polls, and these amazing numbers so far across early voting.
Bonner: Yeah. Well, what we see generally in Texas, and also around the country, is that young voters are often taken for granted. There’s a self fulfilling prophecy about the youth that we’re not going to show up, so campaigns aren’t going to make the investment. And then we don’t show up because they didn’t make the investment. And then they’re like, ‘Oh, we were right,’ we won’t do it again. And so we have so many young people who have never been contacted by a campaign before. They haven’t been invited into this civic life, into this process, which we know is so critical for first time voters who are trying to navigate this complicated, bureaucratic archaic system of voter registration and finding your polling place and what’s on the ballot. Just that jump of stepping into the voting booth for the first time is a big leap to make if you’ve never done it before, [and] you don’t come from a community or a family that are voters. It can be a scary thing. And campaigns have not been willing to make that investment, unfortunately.
So groups like MOVE, and we actually have a really robust youth organizing network in Texas that has arisen in the past several years, have tried to fill that gap. [We] have tried to take the place of campaigns just to equip young people with the information that they need. So much of this isn’t about persuasion or about mobilizing for a candidate. It is about equipping people with information and empowering people with the basic information that they need to be a voter. One of the big things that we did this year is we actually didn’t send out a candidate voter guide as we’ve done in some previous elections. [Instead] we sent out a voter survival guide that just walked new voters through the process of getting to the ballot box, to writing down their candidates on a piece of paper because you can’t use your phone at a polling place in Texas, to find your polling location, to doing all those different steps. And we mailed out 100,000 of those just to walk people through that process and that sort of engagement. That informational engagement is really what’s changing the landscape in Texas.
Changa: I appreciate that. I know Texas, like Georgia has been plagued with long lines at polling locations. What are some of the innovations that you’ve seen around dealing with that? What are some of the ways that you all have innovated in this moment to help make it more accessible for young voters and other voters to participate in this process?
Bonner: Texas, even before the pandemic, led the country in the closure of polling locations. I think the number was around 1,000 polling locations had closed across the country since the gutting of the Voting Rights Act, and 750 of them were in Texas, and they were unsurprisingly, predominantly in Black and brown communities in this state. They’ve made it very clear who they would like to vote for in Texas and who they would not like to vote. It’s fighting math, fighting the anxiety around wait times and helping to keep people in line is very important. Also, fighting for increased access to polling locations. Fighting for campus polling locations so young people who often don’t have access to transportation can still make their voices heard. That side of things is really critical.
We also worked with a lot of musicians, we’ve done a bunch of Instagram live concerts in the same way that we might do it. Get out the vote registration concerts, at little bars across the state. We did a show on Instagram Live with emerging artists across the state. It was really important to us that we were able to pay all of those graphic artists and musicians in the middle of this pandemic, making sure that people were still getting paid for their work in a time when so many of them were not. So putting money directly in the hands of young people, young artists, and trying to move the culture around voting. Because yes, we have laws that are holding Texas back as a voter suppression state. But we also have a culture that holds us back. We have to fundamentally change the culture around voting in this state. And to me, that’s what 2020 is all about. That’s what we’re seeing happening right now. Just a fundamental shift in the electorate.
Changa: A fundamental shift in the electorate—you said it right there. So many people focus on voter suppression, as if it has to be this expressly malicious, overtly, racist, oppressive. Just talk to me about some of the ways that you all have come to understand the way in which voter suppression works in Texas.
Bonner: Yes, I’m so glad you said that. Because really, the most insidious form of voter suppression is convincing people that their voices don’t matter. That’s a step back even from their vote, right? We can’t even have the conversation about Election Day, until we talk about the fact that we’ve convinced broad swaths of this state that what they think and that their lived experience do not matter to the people in power. And so when we’re talking to young people, when we’re trying to get them registered in these communities, part of it is just about taking ownership. When I think about voter registration, and genuinely why I do this work is because I think every time you register someone to vote, you’re helping them take ownership over their life, in their community, [and] in their future. That changes people. I know it sounds hokey, or overly sentimental about what democracy is, but we need to empower a generation much more broadly than just electorally. And so to me, that’s what’s so important is just going into these spaces in which people have never been before.
I don’t get to go out in the field as often as I would like anymore, but we went to a community college campus in rural Texas. I’d gone to the University of Texas, kind of our flagship university here, and it’s a running joke how often you’re asked to get registered to vote, right, you can’t walk across campus without being asked to register to vote. In this small college, it was very clear that no one had ever asked these people to vote, never asked them to be involved, never invited them into this process. Several of them didn’t know that you even had to register to vote. Those are the folks that we need to be reaching right now. And that’s what MOVE has really excelled at, is going into these places where no other civic organizations were going, because so few people were investing in Texas, and showing people that they matter. And so, yes, we need to fight the laws. And we will and we do, both in the courts and in the Texas Legislature and in the kind of county space, which is really where a lot of electoral law happens in Texas. But we also at this moment, so close to this election, we got to vote. And we have to bring people with us and people who have never voted before. And we have to show up in numbers so large, so dramatic, that no amount of voter suppression could confuse the results. That that is really our role in this moment in history.
Changa: That is so powerful. Is there anything else about the work you are doing and MOVE, or that’s happening in Texas that I didn’t ask you about that you think it’s important to note?
Bonner: I would say I think just like stepping back from 2020. But what we’re seeing here is not happening in a vacuum. And it is not a one off thing caused by some candidate or a campaign making an investment, which they largely have not. This is about years of work, we saw a youth voter turnout triple between 2014 and 2018. And I think we’ll see even more growth this year. We’re already seeing it in early voting, which I think also important to note, young voters low propensity voters generally don’t vote in that beginning part of early voting where we saw this massive expansion. So I still think there are hundreds of thousands of young people that have yet to vote, and will make their voices heard. But we’re building on that moment this robust grassroots organizing that’s been happening at the local level. And that’s what’s going to change Texas. And what is so heartening to me is that is being led by young people, by young people of color by queer people who are reclaiming their homes, rightmy family’s lived in Texas forever. And I’ve never seen myself represented here ever. And so to be in this moment, where we’re all claiming our own power, is it’s truly something to behold. And it’s a very special time here.
I’m getting emotional! What’s happening? [LAUGHS]