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Catoosa County Board of Elections member Rickey Kittle hands a reviewed ballot to Catoosa County Board of Elections member Phil Langston during the first day of recounts for the 2020 election at the Catoosa County Elections office on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020, in Ringgold, Ga. (Troy Stolt/Chattanooga Times Free Press)

As the results came trickling in on election night, there were no surprises with how well Donald Trump fared in Northwest Georgia. The reliably Republican sector of the state carried Trump with an average of 79% of the vote.

However, as the week went on, Georgia was thrust into the national spotlight as President-elect Joe Biden gained significant ground on Trump's early lead in the state as mail-in ballots from cities that historically lean Democratic were counted.

As of Friday afternoon, Biden was leading by about 14,000 votes in Georgia, and multiple media outlets called the state for him. If the results hold through a pending recount and get certified, Biden will be the first Democrat to win the state since Bill Clinton won the presidency in 1992.

All 159 election offices are recounting ballots by hand following an order from Brad Raffensperger, the Republican secretary of state. Raffensperger has said his office issued the hand count order due to the slim margin in the race, not because anyone in the Trump campaign asked the state to do so.

The audit comes more than a month before two Senate runoffs that will decide which party controls the U.S. Senate. Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler — appointed to her seat by Gov. Brian Kemp after Sen. Johnny Isakson stepped down due to health concerns — and Sen. David Perdue both have serious competition.

Loeffler will face the Rev. Raphael Warnock, activist and senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s former church. Perdue will face Jon Ossoff, a former investigative journalist.

Republicans need one of the Georgia seats for a majority. Democrats must win both to yield a 50-50 Senate, with Vice President-elect Kamala Harris then holding the tie-breaking vote.

With Biden leading and expected to win Georgia's 16 electoral votes, it's important to know how Georgia got here.

 

YOUNGER, MORE DIVERSE

To understand Georgia's flip, it's necessary to understand who is voting compared to 20 years ago.

A noticeable shift in the electorate started in the early 2000s, a time when Blacks made up about 25% of the electorate in Georgia, said Andra Gillespie, an associate professor of political science and director of the James Weldon Johnson Institute at Emory University in Atlanta.

The Great Migration is referred to the time between 1916 and 1970 when more than six million African Americans moved away from the rural South. Some political scientists are saying Georgia is seeing a reversal, but Gillespie said that happened already.

"Blacks were still 30% of registered voters in 2008," she said. "Those effects (of a reverse Great Migration) would have kind of manifested themselves in the in 2000s and they plateaued in the 20-teens."

The Black electorate grew from the early 2000s to the mid-2010s and has leveled off since.

The bigger jump, Gillespie said, has been in two other demographics of people.

"African Americans are the face of the Democratic Party in Georgia, you can't deny that," Gillespie said. "But the place we've seen greater growth is among Asian American and Hispanic voters. What used to be 3% of the electorate is now 6% of the electorate. It's small, but you can't ignore it. That doubled."

Lawyer Stacey Abrams put the state on notice when she narrowly lost the gubernatorial race in 2018 to Kemp by less than 55,000 votes. Nearly 4 million votes were cast. But even before Abrams' narrow loss, Democrats in Georgia had been closing the gap for decades.

"Georgia also has enough liberal whites that, if you get enough of the white vote, coupled with these non-white votes, Democrats can be competitive," Gillespie said. "That's what's happened in Georgia."

Hillary Clinton lost Georgia by five percentage points in 2016. Barack Obama lost by about nine percentage points in 2012.

"These weren't the double-digit margins that George W. Bush won by," Gillespie said. "The margins have been narrowing in gubernatorial races, too. Jason Carter lost by eight points in 2014 and Abrams by a point and a half in 2018."

 

NEW REGISTERED VOTERS

Long before Georgia became a real battleground state in 2020, experts knew the 2020 election would break turnout records.

What experts didn't know for sure was which party the record turnout would favor. In 2020, it's clear that it favored Democrats, mainly because newly registered voters in cities and Democratic-leaning areas outnumbered those new voters in rural areas that typically vote Republican.

In Nov. 2008, Georgia had 5.75 million registered voters. That number increased to 6.07 million in 2012, 6.64 million in 2016, 6.94 million in 2018 and 7.23 million in 2020.

From the beginning of 2016 to November of 2020, Georgia has added one million new voters, nearly two-thirds of whom were people of color and almost half under age 35, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The increase in registered voters in the past two years has been significant as well and not just in urban areas.

In the seven counties in the Times Free Press coverage area — Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade, Gordon, Murray, Walker and Whitfield counties — 32,215 new registered voters were added between the 2018 Gubernatorial race and 2020's Presidential race.

The seven counties combined saw a 16.43% growth in registered voters. That's a higher growth rate than Fulton (15%), Cobb (10.47%), Gwinnett (10.91%) and DeKalb (10.73%) counties.

Even though places like Northwest Georgia saw a higher percentage growth in registration in the past two years, Democratic strongholds were able to flip the state because of turnout.

That's where people like Abrams come in to play.

"A decade ago, the Democratic Party in Georgia was organized enough to be able to take advantage of the changing demographics," Gillespie said. "Stacey Abrams, in particular, identified non-voters, registered them to vote and then provided education and reminders about when to turn out to vote as a mobilization technique."

There are estimates that Abrams and her Fair Fight project — a nonprofit organization with the goal of promoting fair elections, encouraging voter participation and working against voter suppression — helped 800,000 people register to vote since 2018. Abrams has said 45% of those new voters are under the age of 30 and 49% are people of color.

The key was to get those people out to vote, which they did in 2020.

(READ MORE: Dade County man died in 2015 and voted in 2020)

Biden outperformed Clinton and Abrams in every major county in the Atlanta area. He won 83% in DeKalb County compared to 79% for Clinton, 72.6% in Fulton compared to 67.7% for Clinton and 58.4% in Gwinnett County compared to 50.2% for Clinton.

Trump defeated Clinton 2,089,104 to 1,877,963 in the 2016 election in Georgia. Biden was declared the victor of Georgia with 2,472,182 to Trump's 2,458,010.

It's also no secret the coronavirus pandemic played a role in Democrats faring well on the national level.

Nearly 75% of Georgia voters voted in person, while 25% chose to vote no-excuse absentee, Raffesperger said this week in a news release. That no-excuse absentee law was adopted by a Republican legislature, supported by House Speaker David Ralston and signed into law by then-Gov. Sonny Perdue.

Federal law, not state law, is what allows people to register to vote before a runoff even if they weren't registered for the general election.

 

JANUARY'S RUNOFFS

Georgia House Rep. Kasey Carpenter, R-Dalton, doesn't see Georgia voting for Biden over Trump as a doom-and-gloom scenario for Republicans in the state. In fact, Georgia state Republicans fared better than expected and held on to many competitive seats in the state House and Senate.

"There were some concerns over the last few years of holding those seats but we ended flipping one seat and losing three," Carpenter said. "Going in, people were saying we might be going down 10 or 20 so statewide. I would say we did pretty well."

Carpenter said he wasn't surprised by the results in November. Down the ballot, he thinks Republicans fared well and that it's realistic to assume people on the fence didn't like Trump's style.

"Both sides saw record turnout. The U.S. House Republicans did better than expected, and we knew it was going to be a very confrontational presidential election," he said. "Trump's kind of like a like switch. You're either on or off with him, there are no maybes."

The city that Carpenter represents cast votes for Biden by the highest percentage of any community in Northwest Georgia, albeit a still slim percentage of 29% of the vote. Carpenter wasn't surprised by that either.

"We have a large Hispanic population here, and even though we might have had some Republicans vote for Biden this time, that doesn't mean they won't vote Republican in these upcoming Senate races," Carpenter said.

Georgia is now a true battleground state. Carpenter and his Republican colleagues know it. The Democratic Party in the state has seen this coming for years. But assuming it will stay blue is naive.

"The idea that a Democrat would win a statewide election in Georgia was a matter of when, not if," Gillespie said. "I think in the near term future, we are going to be looking at very competitive races with narrow margins and alternating victories between Democratic and Republican candidates."

At the end of the day, it will all depend on which party has the better turnout, Gillespie said.

The whole country will have eyes on Georgia for the runoff election on Jan. 5. It's estimated that 23,000 people who were too young to vote in the general election will be eligible to vote in January. The deadline to register is Dec. 7.

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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