For 48 hours in the lead-up to Georgia’s general election, Malika Redmond, director of a grassroots voter engagement group, was working without electricity. “I laugh now,” she told me. “Hurricane Zeta ripped through Georgia.… I was like, could there be anything else? You’ve got a pandemic, of all of the things that could be in the way.” Georgia voters are used to obstacles, she was saying. “Georgia voters are resilient. Black voters in particular.”
The group Redmond co-founded in 2014, called Women Engaged, came on the heels of both her past work around reproductive justice with groups like SisterSong and the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder rolling back significant provisions in the Voting Rights Act. “The minute that was gone,” said Redmond, “we were going to be faced with aggressive efforts to suppress Black voters in particular.” At the same time, she saw the potential of voting rights work to start with the issues that were most important to Black voters, like the fact that Georgia hadn’t expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act. “People were fighting for it,” said Redmond, and that gave them “an ability to talk about reproductive and sexual health care and family planning, as part of a holistic look at what it would mean if you didn’t have to worry about having health care. That was how it was merged.” What that meant in turn for Black women, she said, is they could put the key issues that matter to them “at the forefront and center of our politics, and not have it have to be compartmentalized, that we can actually lead with it.” They could use those issues to hold elected officials accountable to “what makes us thrive, versus necessity.”
Rather than seeing reproductive justice—not just the legal right to choose to have an abortion, but an expansive understanding of all the concerns that shape our reproductive lives, such as access to child care and housing, racial discrimination in health care and at work, and policing and criminalization—as an obstacle to reaching voters, it’s how some organizers in Georgia are framing their approach. Too many groups only want to talk to Black voters ahead of big elections, said Michelle N. Wilson, Women Engaged’s senior program manager. Talking about our health and whole lives can create a foundation for something that will last past these moments of crisis that come with high-stakes elections. When you show up long before that and listen to what people are dealing with, the relationships made are about more than just turnout. “Bringing in the frame of reproductive justice into voter engagement really deepens the conversation, so we can stop looking at voting in a transactional manner,” said Wilson. “It’s really dehumanizing.”
Reproductive justice is a way of understanding how economics intersect with reproductive health, and can be a way to mobilize people. Low-income parents in Georgia currently face life-threatening circumstances. For several years running, Georgia has had one of the worst rates of maternal mortality in the United States, something that expanding Medicaid past the 60 days provided to new mothers could help address. At the same time, 76 percent of women below the poverty line in Georgia make too much money to qualify for that extension, according to research by the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute: “This means that a family of three would need to earn less than $9,122 a year to continue their Medicaid coverage.” Cash payments for low-income families available through the state’s Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, also according to the Georgia Budget & Policy Institute, “remained unchanged since 1996, $280 per month for a family of three.”
A reproductive justice–informed get-out-the-vote framework can speak to these issues while also moving beyond that transactional kind of voter outreach, including from some reproductive rights groups. Historically, the white feminist–dominated agenda of those groups has marginalized Black women, whether by displacing their leadership or deifying them as the ones who would “save” other voters, a frame that both is patronizing and invisibilizes the work Black women do on their own behalf. “Black women have always had an independent movement to save our own lives, that has not needed to be connected to a kind of white solidarity tokenizing engagement,” said Redmond. “We’re building upon the work of Black women who were thinking so far ahead,” like Ida B. Wells, known primarily as the foremost journalist to investigate lynching but who also fought for women’s suffrage, and Loretta Ross, who helped define the reproductive justice framework.
Much attention has rightly been drawn to the leadership of Black women in get-out-the-vote efforts in Georgia, especially in the historic turnout in the 2020 election. For groups at the forefront of that work, reproductive justice has been part of the strategy. Women Engaged is not alone. The New Georgia Project, which was founded by Stacey Abrams, asks people to pledge to defend reproductive justice by committing to vote.
Voter suppression in Georgia, too, is a national story right now. Georgia voters have already had a deciding role in who controls the White House. Their runoff election Tuesday will determine who controls the Senate. And Sunday, we learned that the outgoing president pressured Georgia’s secretary of state to “find 11,780 votes” so he would prevail, part of his tactics to cast doubt on an election in which Black voters have been pivotal.
But Georgia voters are ready, as Redmond said. Her group is among the cluster of community-based organizations working to engage voters and get them to the polls (or get a postage stamp, as the case may be). They were there long before the general election, Redmond said. They were there in 2018, when Brian Kemp declared victory over Stacey Abrams in the gubernatorial race; then–Secretary of State Kemp engaged in “textbook voter suppression,” said Abrams.
The aftermath of the 2018 race was an opportunity for Black voters to connect the dots, Redmond recalled. “Especially for those of us who are younger, who don’t have a lived experience of an era pre–Voting Rights Act, and only [from] movies have an understanding of what it means to have your vote suppressed, to have polling locations closed in your face.… Many of us [were] able to have conversations with our grandparents about experiences we didn’t think we would ever share.”
As those past elections showed, the win or loss is just the start of something bigger. It can be a single piece of a wider strategy that adjusts and recalibrates as needed. While the Georgia runoff will shape the incoming Biden’s administration’s ability to govern, through deciding control of the Senate and key votes, the results are not the only thing that matters. Likewise, “it’s deeper than just turning out the vote for the election,” Wilson said. People need more than to be told where to vote; they need to talk about why and how it would matter. And as they see it, what people are facing now, and were up against even before a global pandemic, will require drawing on frameworks originated by Black women, like reproductive justice and intersectionality. Because they work. “You can’t talk about these issues that require complex public policy antidotes in compartmentalized, two-dimensional ways—flat—you just can’t do it,” Redmond said, “and then say it’s supposed to be helpful to everyone.”