Black voters key to Democrats' hopes in Georgia Senate runoffs

Elodie CUZIN

At a small but lively election rally in the town of Hampton, south of Atlanta, the message is plain to see, right in a sign on the stage: "African Americans. Flip the Senate."

Voters in traditionally conservative Georgia head to the polls on Tuesday for two crucial Senate runoffs that will decide which party controls the upper chamber of the US Congress.

If the Democrats win both races, the balance of power will shift their way -- and a big turnout among Black voters is seen as the key to that success.

"It is important that African Americans and minorities show up to the polls," Sukari Johnson, the Democratic Party chair in Clayton County, told AFP.

At the rally, which brought together young voters and families for a day of speeches and entertainment, many were given signs that read: "Always Bet on Black."

T-shirts, pins and bags were also distributed for free, and attendees asked to call three friends to get the message out. "Vote" is the word on everyone's lips.

"A lot of people are hurting now since Covid, and are unemployed. And so if you want anything to change, we have to elect" Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, Johnson said.

As Ossoff himself puts it, "the Democratic standardbearers are the young Jewish son of an immigrant mentored by John Lewis and a Black pastor who holds Dr (Martin Luther) King's pulpit at Ebenezer Baptist Church."

- 'I'm hopeful' -

Georgia, a state still marked by its segregationist past, was home to both King and late civil rights leader John Lewis, who passed away last year after a decades-long career in the US House of Representatives.

But the southern state has never elected a Black senator -- the 51-year-old Warnock would be the first -- and has not sent a Democrat to the Senate in 20 years.

So, Warnock and Ossoff, a 33-year-old documentary film producer, have a lot of political ground to make up. The party's hopes -- and those of President-elect Joe Biden -- are resting on their shoulders.

"If we don't get them in, Biden won't be able to do much," Johnson says matter-of-factly.

If Ossoff defeats incumbent David Perdue, and Warnock bests sitting senator Kelly Loeffler, the Senate will be at a 50-50 split -- meaning incoming Vice President Kamala Harris would have the deciding vote.

That means Biden would have both chambers behind him, making it easier to push ahead with his agenda.

Biden's win in November energized Democratic voters in Georgia -- it was the first time since 1992 that the state chose a presidential candidate from that party.

Voters like 59-year-old teacher Mary Garrett believe a Democratic win is possible on Tuesday.

"I'm hopeful," she said.

- Early voting -

More than three million voters in Georgia, out of the seven million registered, cast their ballots early -- a record for a runoff, but a lower number than seen at the same point in the presidential election.

Biden's win was due in part to anti-Trump Republicans and independents, some of whom may return to the GOP fold this time around.

Trey Hood, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, says Black voters are "one of the biggest bases of supports for Democratic candidates in the state, so the Black turnout is pivotal."

One out of every three of Georgia 10.6 million residents is African American. What has changed, according to Hood, is the increasing number of Blacks in the overall electorate. That figure is now at nearly 30 percent.

- 'Black Voters Matter' -

Rally organizers in Hampton wear masks that read "Black Voters Matter" -- a riff on the Black Lives Matter movement.

On the back of efforts by former Georgia lawmaker Stacey Abrams, who has been credited with galvanizing the party in her home state, the party has worked on mitigating what were seen as obstacles to minority turnout: long waits, difficulties in registering to vote and voter ID woes.

In the rural town of Eatonton, Ossoff campaigned on Saturday, cruising in on his campaign bus. He spoke to a few dozen voters at a rally before they headed out to knock on doors and try to convince their neighbors.

"Even as you're out there on the doors today, feel in your heart what we are fighting for: equal justice for all," he said to cheers from the modest crowd of both white and Black voters.

"You have the power to make this happen."

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