Georgia Voters: Not Yet

On a night when the rest of America was saying “Yes, we can!” to the notion of electing a black man as president, voters in Georgia defiantly replied, “No, we won’t!”

The election of Barack Obama as the country’s first African-American president was indeed a historic and humbling moment, a reminder of how far this country has come on racial, sexual and cultural matters over the past four decades.

When I was a teenager in the South, a black man who was presumptuous enough to try to vote, or to register other blacks to vote, could find himself shot, beaten, killed and buried under an earthen dam. I would never have guessed that in my lifetime I would see Southerners not only accede to the idea of blacks voting but would actually support a black presidential candidate. (Consider that Obama carried the state of Virginia, which once closed its public schools to avoid having to integrate them.)

But Georgia? For the second election in a row, our voters decided to swim against the Democratic tide that has reshaped the political scene in other regions; and they delivered the state’s electoral votes to John McCain. They also voted to retain large Republican majorities in both the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.

The bulk of the electorate is evidently happy to keep the state in the reddest Republican mode.

For a while, anyway.

Even as Georgia delivered its votes one more time to a Republican presidential candidate, it wasn’t nearly the sweep it was four years ago when George W. Bush beat John Kerry by 17 percentage points and nearly 550,000 votes. As I write these words there are still an unknown number of absentee ballots yet to be tabulated, but it appears that McCain beat Obama by only five percentage points and about 200,000 votes. The U.S. Senate race was even closer.

Times are changing, as Obama’s national victory vividly illustrates. Like the rest of the country, Georgia is becoming more diverse as the percentage of black and Latino residents continues to climb upward while the percentage of whites continues its steady decline.

Several years ago, I sat in the IBEW hall in Atlanta on a chilly winter morning as elected officials and activists of the Georgia Democratic Party held one of their periodic executive committee meetings. Cathy Cox, who was then the secretary of state, gave a brief speech in which she noted that there were 200,000 African Americans of voting age who lived in Georgia but had never registered to vote. That was a large bloc of potential voters just waiting for the political organization that was willing to make the effort to get them registered, Cox said.

For whatever reason, party officials weren’t in a mood to listen to her. That group of prospective voters went unregistered and the party continued to lose elections in Georgia.

Even though the state Democratic Party didn’t get the message, a young U.S. senator from Illinois did. Barack Obama’s campaign dispatched a herd of staffers to Georgia earlier this year and they made a concerted effort to start signing up those prospective African-American voters who had never been reached before. Their success can be measured by the record number of people, more than 2 million in all, who came out and voted an early ballot. About 35 percent of those early voters were African American.

The current secretary of state, Karen Handel, said, “it’s a myth, y’all,” when she was discussing reports last summer of a surge in black voter registration, but it was no myth at all.

Compared to the last presidential election year, there were 39 percent more new black voter registrations in 2008 than in 2004. New Hispanic registrants were up by 76 percent this year and new registrations of Asian American voters increased by 12 percent.

By contrast, the number of new white voters registered in 2008 was down by more than 10 percent from the number who signed up in 2004.

I think you can see the trend here. Senator Obama could not carry Georgia in 2008, but President Obama just might be able to do it in 2012. We are an ever-changing state in a rapidly changing political era.

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