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How this top voting rights activist uses business and data to protect the vote

Nsé Ufot, CEO of the Stacey Abrams-founded New Georgia Project, is minting “super voters” and inspiring corporations to get involved.

How this top voting rights activist uses business and data to protect the vote
[Photo: Salim Garcia ]
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As the leader of the New Georgia Project, the Stacey Abrams–founded civic engagement organization, and its political action arm, the New Georgia Project Action Fund, Nsé Ufot is on a mission not just to enroll new voters in her state, but to turn them into what she calls “super voters”—people who show up for each and every election. Since its founding in 2014, the NGP has helped more than 500,000 young people and people of color register to vote across the state, which tipped Georgia blue in the 2020 presidential race and delivered Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff to the Senate. Ufot is now working to protect these new voters from efforts to suppress them. When Georgia’s state legislators proposed a restrictive voting law earlier this year, Ufot used social media and a digital billboard campaign to call on Georgia- based businesses such as Coca-Cola, Delta Air Lines, and Home Depot to denounce the bill. After it passed, the NGP joined with two other groups to sue Georgia’s secretary of state for violating the 14th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act.

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Where did your interest in civic engagement begin? 

I am the only daughter of some really conservative, lower-case “c,” Christian African immigrants. I would be playing trash can basketball with my brothers and the boys from the neighborhood, and then would get yelled at by my mom to come in and make dinner for the family. Bringing my family along with my politics—because they weren’t going to change me—meant shifting their gender politics. So being a girl child in this very male-dominated religious culture gave me perspective. Then studying for my American citizenship exam gave me the vocabulary. And then I worked as a labor lawyer and union organizer, which gave me the experience, strategy, and tools that I need to do this kind of work.

You have a theory that super voters are made, not born. What does that mean for how the New Georgia Project works? 

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The super voters that we most frequently come into contact with are people over 65 and Black women across all ages. So we ask, What is it that Black women know, that our grandparents know, that has them showing up to vote at every election—and how are campaigns communicating with them? We wanted to take [other] voters in our state who are largely ignored— and who are the swingiest voters in our country—and turn them into super voters. So it’s not just registering people, it’s figuring out what kind of message is going to move them. What’s going to move, say, a Black Lives Matter activist who has given up on democratic institutions and says that their vote doesn’t matter? What is going to get that person to listen to us, then register to vote, and then vote in every election that they’re eligible for for the rest of their lives? And what needs to happen to make sure they stay on the voter rolls. And then, finally, how we can convert these people into members, activists, and organizers who show up with us on our campaigns. 

How do you identify these different groups of potential voters?

At the core of [the NGP Action Fund’s] work is a robust research agenda. We developed an “Abrams score” to determine where people fall on the ideological spectrum: low means you’ll likely be a conservative Republican, higher means a progressive Democrat. In a lot of places, if you know the race and gender and maybe income of someone, you have enough to understand where that person falls on the spectrum. That’s not the case in Georgia, where there are Black male conservative Democrats who are pro-Trump or whose ideology is right up to the line. In our Black electoral research, we’ve also identified woke activists and color-blind conservatives, or African Americans who say that race hasn’t hindered [them] or who don’t see race as an issue in our economy and institutions. We have [a score] for first-generation college grads. We’ve also built a predictive model to analyze voters of color who are not Black, because this idea that color is a political identity is not a real thing.

How do you measure the success of these efforts? 

Not only have we registered over half a million young people and people of color who then showed up to vote in multiple elections, but we’ve also seen an increase in participation in city council meetings. We’ve seen an increase in the number of people who are running for office and who come from the communities that we organize with. We are supporting nine candidates all under the age of 25, who are running for school boards in 2021 and who will bring the voice of students into the room as they’re making decisions about how to return and how to address a lost year of learning. And we’re changing the culture of voting and civic engagement. We hire drag queens to come out and perform on election day. Yes, we give out water. And yes, we hire food trucks, but also stilt walkers and drag queens and ballet troupes to keep voters’ spirits high.

When the Georgia legislature was considering the restrictive voting bill SB 202, you launched a campaign that called out Georgia-based corporations for supporting it. Why was this so important? 

I don’t think these companies appreciated that it’s more than a rhetorical device when we talk about American democracy being the foundation on which their widely successful, publicly traded corporations are allowed to flourish. We back-channeled to them and told them it was time for them to say something. Many just dismissed us as, like, annoying civil rights activists. But anyone rubber- stamping the policy priorities of this version of the [Republican] party needs to be called out. I was encouraged when companies stopped campaign contributions, but our efforts are ongoing. We are using shareholder meetings to remind people that these companies, that you are part owner of, can help protect the protect the rights of voters.

The Georgia bill passed. What’s next? 

Within an hour of SB 202 becoming a law, we filed a lawsuit. But voter suppression is the number one priority for the Republican Party, and Georgia is one of 47 states where this is happening. So HR1 and HR4 [proposed federal legislation to protect and expand voting rights] is a priority. We are also providing talking points and strategy memos to groups in places like Texas, North Carolina, and Michigan who are in a similar situation. We’re literally on every battlefield.

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