Voters line up to cast ballots in the general election, Nov. 6, 2012, in Bethlehem, Ga.
David Tulis/AP

How progressives can turn the deep South blue

Updated

The whispers are traveling around progressive circles from Atlanta to Washington: Georgia might go blue by 2020 or even 2016.

But what about 2014?

The demographic winds in the South are shifting, and the question is only a matter of how fast. This November, Michelle Nunn has a chance to become the first Democratic senator from Georgia in a decade. Her success – and the success of the progressive movement in the South – will boil down to one thing above all: voter registration.

There have been a number of dress rehearsals for a more progressive South, from the Reconstruction Era to the wave of progressive Southern governors in the late 1960’s. Progressives have experienced disappointment so many times, we are prepared to be disappointed again. But this time can be different.

Three things are happening at once to change the face of the South forever: black re-migration, Latino immigration and frustration with the conservative movement among young people and independent white women.

In the past few years, Black Americans have been moving back to the South from big cities in search of jobs and cheap rent, while Latinos and Asian Americans have moved into southern states at an astonishing pace. At the same time, white women and young southern voters are becoming fed up with traditional conservative positions on women’s rights, voting rights and environmental protection, as well as their failure to address economic inequality. All of these trends have led to a resurgence of progressive politics.

Sitting at the intersection of these crossing currents is the state of Georgia. In the past few years, every demographic trend in Georgia has favored progressives. Ruy Teixeira at the Center for American Progress sums it up nicely:

In the last decade, Georgia had a rapid rate of increase in its minority population, going from 37% to 44% minority over the time period. The increase in the minority population accounted for 81% of Georgia’s growth over the decade.

How has this played out in elections? In 2000, whites made up 75% of voters in the Georgia presidential race. Twelve years later, they made up 61%. Mitt Romney won the state, but only by 304,000 votes – despite the fact that Obama hardly invested any time or energy there.

The question of whether Georgia will become blue is actually a question of when. The answer to that question depends on voter registration. There are more than 600,000 unregistered black Americans in Georgia, plus thousands of unregistered Latinos, Asian-Americans, women and millennials. At an average cost of $12 per registration, it would cost less than $8 million to register virtually all of Georgia’s unregistered black voters. If even half of them had voted for President Obama in 2012, we would be having a very different conversation today.

The far-right wing knows this. They believe it so fully that they have taken measures to disempower communities of color by making it more difficult for them to vote. The city of Athens, Ga., has a plan to eliminate nearly half of its 24 polling sites, which would force some voters to take a 3-hour bus ride in order to vote. Nearby Augusta recently moved elections to July and then to May, which many see as a move to diminish the black vote.

These attempts at voter suppression should only serve to remind us how important our right to vote really is. But even if the walls of voter suppression rise high, we can swamp them by making the tide of voter registration rise higher.

For a textbook case of how this works, look to Florida in 2012. In the years preceding the 2012 election, the Florida GOP introduced a number of obscure laws to stifle the vote: limits on early voting, Sunday voting and voter registration drives. But progressive activists kept registering voters, despite the risk of new fines and even jail time. By Election Day, the NAACP had registered more than 115,000 people despite other major groups shutting down for most of the year out of fear of the new laws.

President Obama’s official margin of victory in Florida was just over 73,000 votes.

The Southern Strategy’s dominance is coming to an end, and intense voter registration will make it end sooner. Florida set the standard. Georgia can prove the point. And throughout the South, we can make the future come faster if we organize.

These possibilities are fueling excitement for a revival of the Freedom Summer from Mississippi to the Carolinas. As Stacey Abrams, the first black female House Minority Leader of the Georgia State Assembly, told me: “2014 is a transformational year. Demography may be destiny, but voter registration is the pathway to the future in Georgia.”

Benjamin Todd Jealous is the former president and CEO of the NAACP.

How progressives can turn the deep South blue

Updated