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Young voters look to play key role in Georgia runoffs, Senate control

"As a voter in Georgia, I never felt more like my vote counted than this past election,” one college student said.
Image: Juliet Eden
Juliet Eden, the Communications Director for the University of Georgia's "Fair Fight" chapter volunteered to be a poll worker on Election Day.Courtesy Juliet Eden

Katarina Flicker, an Emory University junior, took the entire fall semester off to organize for Georgia Democrats, helping register other students to vote.

And even though November's election is over — with President-elect Joe Biden flipping the state blue for the first time since 1992 — Flicker isn't finished. She's now working closely with the Young Democrats of Emory to register even more people ahead of Georgia's two high-stakes Senate runoff races, the outcome of which will determine which party controls the Senate.

During the general election, voters 18-29 made up 20 percent of the Georgia electorate, according to NBC News exit polls. As the Jan. 5 runoffs draw closer, young Georgians on both sides of the aisle are working to mobilize their peers to vote again — or for the first time in their lives.

“I think that teenage complacency is something that has been trendy,” Flicker, 20, said. “But seeing the way that my generation, in particular, has stood up and fought for what we believe in ... that is how you make change.”

Katarina Flicker took her fall semester off to work as a field organizer for the Democratic Party of Georgia aiding in both virtual and in-person events, such as the canvassing and merchandise give away event seen here.Courtesy Katarina Flicker

Georgia natives Grace Hall, 20, and Juliet Eden, 21, are students at the University of Georgia in Athens. They serve as president and communications director, respectively, for the college’s “Fair Fight” chapter, the political action committee founded by Stacey Abrams aimed at mitigating voter suppression.

The organization’s primary goal ahead of the runoffs, they said, is to educate voters about the steps they must take in order to ensure their votes are counted, such as checking to make sure they have not been purged from voter rolls.

“I think the entire country is looking at Georgia right now,” Hall, a junior, said.

In a tight general election contest, none of the candidates in Georgia's two Senate races reached the 50 percent threshold to win outright, sending both elections to a runoff in accordance with state law. Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler face Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock, respectively.

Eden, a senior, said that she has "never felt more like my vote counted than this past election because of how close things were."

Madison Potts, a 21-year-old senior at Kennesaw State University and president of the school's chapter of the NAACP, said she's been working on helping get fellow students registered and providing them with information on how to acquire their absentee ballots if they are away from home.

Potts said she's been involved in activism since she was 14, attending protests and encouraging other students to become more politically active. She said she's noticed that "the energy, amongst young people especially, is bigger and better than ever before."

"I know young people in Georgia have really decided this past election, and encouraging them to participate in this runoff and be sure to show up in ways we never have, it's been easier than what it has been in previous years," she said. "So I'm grateful for the new wave of energy around elections, around voter participation and activism."

Tufts University’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement estimates that national youth turnout in the 2020 election exceeded 50 percent, significantly higher than in 2016.

Of Georgia voters who are ages 18-29 in 2020, 56 percent voted for Biden while 43 percent voted for Trump, according to NBC News exit polling. Black voters made up 28 percent of Georgia voters under 30, and they voted 76 percent for Biden and 23 percent for Trump.

The Democratic Senate candidates are making a concerted effort to turn out the youngest voters — those who were not old enough to vote in November but will be eligible come January. According to The Civics Center, an organization dedicated to youth civic engagement, this applies to 23,000 Georgians.

During a virtual rally on Friday, Ossoff said the election is "going to come down to youth turnout, so I am calling on young people to make a plan to vote."

"Make sure that you vote and make sure that everybody in your circle votes," Warnock added.

Ossoff held a get-out-the-vote rally aimed at young voters and students in Cobb County on Thursday, not far from Kennesaw State University's campus. At that event, Jonathan Alvarez, a 20-year-old student at Georgia State University, said in an interview that he "wasn't really interested in politics" ahead of the 2016 election.

"But over the course of the past four years, I've seen the real shift that's happened in the presidency, obviously in the White House," he said. "And with how active [President Donald] Trump is on social media and on Twitter and things like that, it brings out more people to see what he's saying in real time, which made, I feel like, a lot of my generation more interested in politics. Because when you open the front page of Twitter and you see your president talking, you're always pretty much in the loop."

But Alvarez has also been intrigued by a changing Georgia, once an afterthought for Democrats that in recent years has become one of the most hotly contested battlegrounds.

"Seeing in 2018 finally with how close Stacey Abrams was to winning, I was like, 'Oh, wow, things really are changing in Georgia," he said. "And so, it was just like, I've seen the baby steps and I've seen the giant leaps we've made."

Jon Ossoff appears at a Zoom phone bank organized by the College Democrats of America.Courtesy Carter Yost

While some young people are not old enough to vote in the runoffs, they are still working to make a difference, such as co-leader of the "Students for Ossoff and Warnock" organization Ishani Peddi, 17, from Peachtree, Georgia.

"It's very fulfilling to realize that young people, and me as a young person, I'm able to actually make change and make a difference, and fight for issues that I care about by helping to elect these representatives and these elected officials that are actually going to put forth effective legislation, and bring about change in America," she said.

This dedication to political activism spans across party lines, with youth activists signing up to volunteer for the upcoming Senate runoffs for both the Republican and Democratic candidates.

Gurtej Narang, 20, a junior at Georgia State University and the treasurer of the Georgia Association of College Republicans, said he believes it is important that the Senate remains in Republican hands now that Democrats will control both the White House and the House of Representatives. His organization is launching "get out the vote" initiatives and encouraging members to help make calls, ring doorbells, and distribute important information about the candidates to voters across the state.

Jaylan Scott, 20, is the executive vice president of the Young Democrats of Georgia, an organization working to register even more young voters in the state ahead of the runoffs.

"We really have to magnify how major this race is to the United States Senate, the weight of balances, they really depend on if we can get young people out to vote in Georgia," he said.

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Georgia State University senior Alexis Lopez, 21, plans to continue to work with campus organizations to encourage young voters to make sure their voices are heard after interning with Congresswoman-elect Nikema Williams' campaign.

"We feel very passionate about making sure that our justice system is actually just and is making sure that we're getting rid of the systemic racism that affects that system, and also making sure that we are creating a country that works for us and represents who we are," she said.

Georgia native Caroline Hakes, a senior at the George Washington University, is volunteering and voting in the upcoming runoff races. Her work with the GW College Republicans has increased her political passion.

“It’s really easy to feel like your voice doesn’t matter when you are so young, there are a lot of people who say to sit back and let the grownups do it ... I really think that people need to understand just how important it is to have a say in their government,” she said.