How LaTosha Brown helped build a get-out-the-vote powerhouse in the South.
Originally published by The 19th
In the days after Georgia went blue for the first time in a generation, LaTosha Brown wasn’t taking a victory lap — she was on the ground and in the media, thanking the Black voters who made it happen.
“People take our vote and nobody ever comes back and says thank you or celebrates before jumping to the next thing,” said Brown, co-founder of the national get-out-the-vote organization Black Voters Matter. “We wanted to affirm what we can do when we show up together, and to show that we are not a one-night stand organization. We ain’t going nowhere.”
Alongside her co-founder, Cliff Albright, and an army of grassroots partner organizations, Brown, 50, is now working to turn out Black voters in a pair of consequential Senate runoffs between incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, who are facing Democrats Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock. The winners of the contests will determine the balance of power in the upper chamber.
Ahead of Tuesday’s election, Black Voters Matter is meeting the reality on the ground. The organization is focused not just on the race — registering and turning out thousands of voters — or even on the candidates themselves, but on feeding nearly 20,000 families, offering free coronavirus testing and continuing to support struggling areas of the state, whether they end up casting a ballot or not.
Historically, runoff elections in the state typically favor Republicans, given that there is usually a severe Democratic dropoff in turnout. But during early voting, more than 3 million Georgians cast ballots, and Black voters — who account for 33 percent of the state’s electorate — made up more than 30 percent of early voters; they are also expected to make up 4 percent more of the electorate than in the general election.
Brown said Black Voters Matter is working with over 60 local partners to target 50 counties. As with the general election, she said they are intentionally focused on Georgia’s Black Belt and areas with a Black population of 30 percent or more, which includes metro Atlanta.
The organization blends two approaches, using both star power to drive awareness and grassroots community support to foster trust. For example, on New Year’s Eve, Black Voters Matter held the “Collard Green Caucus” in 30 cities, giving out bundles of collard greens and black-eyed peas — a Southern tradition to bring good luck — as part of a final push. On Monday night, Brown held a virtual conversation with Oprah Winfrey to mobilize voters.
In addition to canvassing in cities and towns across the state, Black Voters Matter also launched a massive radio and digital ad campaign.
This messaging works, in part because Brown is a daughter of the South — Selma, Alabama, specifically. She has spent much of her life organizing to empower Black Southerners and learning the secrets to turn out this Democratic key constituency: centering Black voters and their power (versus a particular candidate); expanding the electorate; and helping them to understand not that politics matter, but that they matter. For Black voters, she also is “the woman next door” whose lived experience translates into an instant credibility and currency in communities like the one she came from, said Emory University political scientist Pearl Dowe.
“She’s not a politician … She could be our neighbor and we would listen to her,” Dowe said of Brown. “She brings that to this moment. There’s a sense of trust. One of the things about Black people, even Southern people, we’re very private people. You feel like this person isn’t trying to hurt or manipulate me, people think she genuinely cares what happens to the community.”
With eight days to go before Georgia voters were set to cast their ballots, Brown pulled what she calls “the Blackest bus in America” into Douglasville, Georgia, during one of the Blackest holidays of the year. Black Voters Matter has a pair of buses and 10 vans emblazoned with the organization’s logo, a raised fist and the words “We Got Power!” in the pan-African colors of red, black and green.
It was the third day of Kwanzaa, which observes the principle of Ujima, a Swahili word meaning “collective work and responsibility.” The day’s theme has been a mantra for Black Voters Matter, and one Brown said embodies the organization’s work more than any other.
“This is our quintessential guiding principle, it’s what we do as an organization, what we’re asking our community to do,” Brown said. “And it works. When we come together, we can make change.”
Since 2016, Black Voters Matter has reached more than 7 million voters through grassroots-level outreach, campaigning and organizing. This year, their efforts were tested by the pandemic, which disproportionately hit Black communities across the country and abetted voter suppression in the form of closed precincts, longer lines and purged voting rolls.
It was in this climate that Brown and Albright launched a 12-state campaign to reach 10 million voters in the general election. After working to deliver victory to President-elect Joe Biden in what many Black voters considered an existential election, they have continued to work to again prove the power of the Black vote, particularly in the Deep South.
“Anti-Black sentiment has been such a part of the foundation of the political landscape in this country that to say ‘Black’ in the context of being good is counterintuitive,” she explained. “We own it. When people own who they are, it actually inspires other folks. There are people who have underestimated the value of that.”
Brown and Albright spent the better part of four years crisscrossing first the state, then the region, then battleground states across the country — listening to local organizers, voters and would-be voters and gaining insight into the local issues driving them. For example, residents in southwest Georgia are grappling with a utilities crisis sticking them with staggering monthly bills and the closure of yet another rural hospital. (In addition to the Senate election, a runoff for public service commissioner — one of five statewide elected officials who control the state’s utility regulation — is on Tuesday’s ballot.)
“It’s just a completely different strategy,” said Hillary Holley, organizing director of Fair Fight, the anti-voter suppression group started by Stacey Abrams in 2018.
“We are being outspent on TV, but we’re outspending Republicans in the ground game,” Holley continued. “[Organizations like Black Voters Matter] take out radio ads on Black gospel radio because that’s where their targeted voters are. It’s not flashy, and they’re not talking about Mitch McConnell because that has nothing to do with what Black voters care about at all. LaTosha is really good at translating how voting can end up impacting and solving a lot of these issues,” Holley said.
It is work that hasn’t always come with the headlines, credit or deep pockets of groups like The Lincoln Project, which launched this year with the sole purpose of ousting President Donald Trump. Brown said her focus is one that is transformational, not transactional.
“We’re literally building a foundation for folks to really think about what it’s going to take to shape a real democracy, that in America is aspirational at best, but certainly has not been achieved,” Brown said. “That’s a distinction, to me, between us and The Lincoln Project. Where were you when they stripped the Voting Rights Act? You found yourself vulnerable because your party has been overtaken by this crazy man. And so, while now we actually have a similar mission, the bottom line is that you have not stood in a space of protecting and fighting for democracy like we have.”
Jennifer Horn, a co-founder of The Lincoln Project, said both efforts are about using the vote to strengthen democracy.
“She’s trying to expand access to that process to a group of Americans who are underserved by it,” Horn said. “What we were doing was targeting a very narrowly-defined group of Americans to use their access to the voting process for the purpose of trying to preserve democracy. While we were taking different paths, I think our goals are the same: To make sure that all American voices are heard and that the electoral process was used for the good of the whole country.”
Brown cautions against the narrative that victory should be the sole burden of Black Georgians.
“We’re out here in these streets, but White folks have to do their part, too,” she said bluntly.
Regardless of what happens on Tuesday, Brown said Georgia’s Black electorate has already won, in part because the idea that Black voters matter became a known fact.
“The way that Black voters were talked about before and the way they’re talked about now has shifted,” she explained.
“For the most part, folks acted like Black folks in the South didn’t exist, that we were just in these red states,” Brown said. “When you talk about Black political leaders right now, you’re talking about the South. [Our organization has] been part of the driver of that narrative.”