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On Friday, Nov. 13, most major news networks projected that former Vice President Joe Biden had won the presidential race in Georgia. That didn’t change the fact that any neutral observer had known for a week that Biden had won the election as a whole.
That would seem to have put the race behind us, even as several lawsuits by the Trump campaign continued to be filed, heard, and tossed. (Even some of Trump’s lawyers are withdrawing from these obviously frivolous cases—attorneys face a reputational risk getting involved in cases so lacking in evidence.)
Our election system, the foundation of our democracy, has been put to a test, and it’s passed—barely.
But the race isn’t over. The balance of power now rests on the outcome of two races for U.S. Senate in Georgia on Jan. 5. Early voting begins Nov. 18, and the stakes could not be higher. If Democrats pick up both seats, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris becomes the tiebreaking vote in a chamber split 50-50. If Republicans manage to hold on to just one seat, however, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell remains the most powerful person in Washington, D.C., as he’s been since Republicans took the chamber in 2014. And there’s no doubt he would continue to use every bit of his power to obstruct any significant reforms from the Biden administration, let alone anything on a progressive wish list.
All this is why the organizing efforts led mostly by Black women have been critical. The New Georgia Project this year sought to register 23,000 17-year-old Georgians to vote. And Fair Fight Action, founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, has fought to protect and restore voting rights to Georgians unfairly disenfranchised by strict laws.
The impact of those efforts can’t be downplayed, because there is so much at stake for the country, and not just about whether Biden will be able to meaningfully enact an agenda in the face of unified Republican opposition.
The U.S. is now in a very dangerous period. Trump himself hasn’t, and won’t, concede the election, because he’s psychologically incapable of admitting defeat. Meanwhile, the Republican Party, with few exceptions, has been playing Trump’s game, claiming fraud despite any evidence, or otherwise refusing to acknowledge Biden’s victory.
This has extended into the apparatus of the federal government. Notably, a relatively obscure political appointee in the General Services Administration has refused to sign the paperwork that would acknowledge Biden’s victory and provide millions of dollars in resources set aside to facilitate the transition between administrations. Other federal agencies have been ordered not to cooperate with Biden’s transition team, including the coronavirus task force… despite the fact that Trump hasn’t attended one of their meetings in five months.
Already we’ve seen Trump’s more militant supporters threatening and committing violence. They tried to stop the counting of votes in the states where Trump led on election night, or insisted on recounts in those where he fell behind. Now in the interregnum we’ve seen the “Million MAGA March” on Washington, D.C., (actual attendance: likely significantly less than a million) that later devolved into street fights between Trump supporters and counter-protesters.
We’ve seen at least one law enforcement official call for the deaths of Democrats. We’ve seen the president’s former adviser call for the beheadings of Dr. Anthony Fauci and FBI Director Christopher Wray. Trump supporters even staged a march outside the New York home of Bill and Hillary Clinton, as if they were still fighting the 2016 election.
Before the election, the Transition Integrity Project brought together professionals from both parties to “game out” post-election outcomes. Most of the results of the exercise ended in violence in America’s streets, and the group warned in its report that Trump’s own behavior after losing would be unpredictable: “Transition teams will likely need to do two things simultaneously: defend against Trump’s reckless actions on his way out of office; and find creative solutions to ensure landing teams are able to access the information and resources they need to begin to prepare for governing.”
That chaos has come to pass, with notable firings of leaders in the Department of Defense, political hacks being hired into powerful civil service positions to make it hard to remove them, and Trump’s refusing to let the government talk to Biden’s team.
This is why Georgia matters. This election, after four years of the Trump administration’s dysfunction, corruption, malign neglect, and authoritarian drive to consolidate power for decades to come, 70 million people still said they’d prefer four more years of the same to what promises to be more or less competent leadership from President-elect Biden. Even so, the Biden administration and activists hoping to seize the moment and propel the country leftward will have to contend with a likely Republican-held Senate and Trump’s 222 (and counting) lifetime appointments to federal judgeships, including 53 Appeals Court judges and three Supreme Court justices, with 32 nominations still awaiting Senate approval.
This should not have been a close one. And if it weren’t for a lot of organizing at the ground level, including in Georgia, it wouldn’t have been: Trump would have repeated his 2016 Electoral College win, and the American experiment would come to an undignified end.
In Georgia, that organizing drove turnout to up to a record 5 million votes cast in the state, helping Trump become the first Republican to lose the state since 1992, by about 14,000 votes. That same organizing also helped Nikema Williams, the state Democratic Party chair, win election to the late John Lewis’ seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, and brought the Senate races into a hair’s breadth of a Democratic victory. Georgia saw record turnout among Black voters and young voters. But voters also stood in long lines during a pandemic, faced technical glitches and delays of up to three hours, including the discovery during a hand recount of 2,600 uncounted votes that hadn’t been uploaded, narrowing Biden’s lead by about 800 votes.
Abrams has been raising millions of dollars for the two Senate runoffs. She knows the stakes, because if anyone has a claim to having an election stolen, it’s Stacey Abrams. She lost her 2018 governor’s race to Brian Kemp by 55,000 votes—after Kemp, who, as Georgia’s secretary of state, had purged nearly 700,000 voters from the system the year before the election, then remained on the job to oversee the election in which he was a candidate. Then, a month before the election, Kemp put an estimated 53,000 more voter registrations on hold under the state’s strict “exact match” voter ID law. Predictably, 70% of those voters whose registrations were placed on hold were Black. And since 2012, Kemp had closed more than 200 polling places—again, mostly in poor and minority communities.
Fair Fight sued and got 22,000 of those purged voters restored in time for the 2020 election, helping turn the Peach State blue. If Democrats pull off the two Senate races, Abrams and her cohort may wind up being the only reason why there is any hope that Biden will be able to effectively govern.
But Abrams has been doing this for years, in the Georgia Legislature, founding the New Georgia Project in 2014, and Fair Fight Action in 2018. She and her co-organizers built this movement from the ground up for close to a decade before the Democratic National Committee provided any institutional support.
Republicans have been playing a longer game for a longer time than Democrats. The Republicans early on invested in local races at the state and municipal level, building up a back bench of talent they can draw on. Meanwhile, national Democrats abandoned their 50-state strategy, and tended to focus attention on swing states. That’s a battle that’s won some results, but often at the cost of races elsewhere—the party lost seats in the House of Representatives this year, and didn’t flip any state legislatures.
Georgia shows that progressive change can happen. But if the national Democrats want to see more of that, they need to do what the Republicans have done, and what Stacey Abrams, the New Georgia Project, and Fair Fight Action have done: Start building from the bottom up. That’s the real foundation of democracy, and without it, any progressive wins are likely to be temporary.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.