Skip to contents

Meet the Rural, Black Voters Who Hold the Key to Georgia’s Midterm Elections

They helped turn the state blue in 2021. But will they turn out again?

Shamarius “Sham” Bolton, lead canvasser with the New Georgia Project, visits a home in Waynesboro, Georgia, on Sept. 21 in search of potential voters ahead of the Nov. 8 election. (Aallyah Wright/Capital B)

WAYNESBORO, Ga. — In the midday heat on a late September afternoon, Shamarius “Sham” Bolton, a 25-year-old lead canvasser with the New Georgia Project, scrolled on his phone to find the next house on his list of registered voters. His task was simple: Talk to residents about their hopes, concerns, and plans for November’s midterm elections.

He walked up to a brick duplex and knocked on a screened door. Seconds later, a young woman holding a small baby appeared. Bolton introduced himself and asked the resident if she was a registered voter.


“Are you eligible? Are you 18?” he questioned.


“Then, what you waitin’ on?”

“I just don’t want to vote,” she said.

Bolton encouraged her to register, so she can influence issues that matter to her. But by the end of the two-minute conversation, he hadn’t made any progress. He thanked the woman for her time, and left behind a door hanger with information about the election and the New Georgia Project, a nonprofit organization focused on voter engagement, registration, and education.

“Sometimes, it just be like that,” he said, walking back to his car to head to the next location.

House after house, Bolton received either no answer or was told that the names on his registered voter list didn’t live there. Other times, residents — like the 18-year-old at the duplex — said they don’t plan to vote. 

For the past two years, Black voters in Georgia have headed to the polls in record-high numbers, turning the state blue and flipping the balance of power in Congress. Rural voters, in particular, were key in electing President Joe Biden in 2020 and Raphael Warnock, the state’s first Black U.S. senator, in 2021.

But now, less than six weeks ahead of the high-stakes midterms, some Black rural voters in Georgia say they lack the motivation, interest, and knowledge about the upcoming election to head to the polling booth. 

The Nov. 8 ballot will be a historic one for the state. It holds the fate of Georgia’s governorship, with Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams hoping to unseat Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and become the first Black woman in U.S. history to hold a state’s executive office. It also includes an unprecedented face-off between two Black men — Warnock and former NFL player Herschel Walker, the Republican challenger  — in a tight race to represent the state in the U.S. Senate.

Despite the monumental moment, the excitement that drove Black Georgians to make history in recent years appears to have cooled. In 2020, 73% of Black voters in the state felt their vote was extremely powerful — a number that plummeted to just 46% by September 2021, according to a newly released NAACP and HIT Strategies poll. Men and young people had the lowest perceptions of power. 

Read more: Young Black Voters Motivated By Issues, Not Candidates

After depending heavily on Black voters to secure the party’s nomination, Biden’s approval has dropped significantly among the demographic. Historically, “low presidential approval ratings have led to dampened enthusiasm and poor turnout,” said Christine Slaughter, assistant professor of political science at Boston University.

In small towns across central and southern Georgia, Black residents — particularly middle-age men and younger people — told Capital B that they didn’t plan to vote either because they don’t trust candidates to keep their promises, don’t think their vote matters, or don’t know enough about who or what to vote for. Some said they simply don’t understand the voting process. 

“Political participation is dictated by political power,” said Terrance Woodbury, CEO and founding partner of HIT Strategies, the public opinion firm that conducted the analysis. “We see this level of erosion in Georgia or frankly, in any other state … then it is likely that the candidates at the top of that ticket — these very diverse candidates on top of those tickets — do not succeed in” getting people out to vote. 

‘Where these people been?’

Sitting on a wooden bench in front of Nina’s Beauty Supply Store in the small town of Eatonton, Georgia, 78-year-old Betty Andrews watched as the traffic ebbed and flowed down the modest commercial corridor of mom-and-pop boutiques and eateries. It was a hot and humid day in September, and Andrews wore a black church hat to keep the sun out of her face. 

When asked her thoughts on the upcoming election, Andrews said, “I haven’t voted in over 40 years.”

Eatonton is an old farming and dairy town of 6,600 people, about 57% of them Black. In Putnam County, where Eatonton is the county seat, former President Donald Trump won by 1.4 percentage points against Biden in 2020, according to the New York Times. In 2018, over 70% of Putnam County voted for Kemp

Abrams and Warnock campaigned in Eatonton in recent months, but some rural residents lament that candidates only visit when it’s time to ask for their votes, Andrews said.

“[People say], ‘I never heard anything about Raphael Warnock or Herschel Walker before, so where these people been all along?’” she said.

For her, seeing candidates personally attack one another and the corruption in politics caused her to stop participating in the process.

“The elected officials don’t address the problems [of the community]. They attack each other,” she said as she pulled her mask up over her nose. “All humans are imperfect, then we cast our vote for someone, then all their dirty work comes out and exposes them.”

About 30 miles east, there’s more evidence of interest in Election Day. Scattered across the small town of Sparta, signs declaring that “Black Voters Matter” and announcing support for Abrams and Warnock are seen in residents’ yards and in front of abandoned buildings. 

Here, in this old cotton town of 1,700 people, Biden defeated Trump by a 52-point margin  in 2020. 

One of those “Black Voters Matter” signs sits in the front yard of Annie Watkins. The 26-year-old said she has voted in every election she can remember and plans to vote for Abrams in November. But she doesn’t know enough about Warnock or Walker to say which she prefers. 

As Watkins sat in a rocking chair on her front porch talking to relatives, many of them shied away from conversations about the elections. They said they didn’t feel comfortable talking about it because they don’t have enough information and, therefore, don’t see the point in voting.

“The candidates that are trying — I understand they’re trying — but they’re still supposed to come around and at least try to support or try to convince the people what they want to change,” Watkins said.

Democratic candidates have enjoyed strong support from Black voters for generations, but recent polling has shown they may be losing ground to a widening generation gap, said Woodbury of HIT Strategies.

Although voter turnout is lower among young voters, it’s not because of voter apathy, he said. They are engaged on issues that affect them, such as abortion access, but feel that not enough progress is being made. As a result, young Black voters don’t trust either political party to handle the issues they care about, Woodbury said. 

About 73% of Black voters said that their lives haven’t improved since Biden became president, according to the NAACP and HIT Strategies research. Almost 30% of younger Black voters said their lives have gotten worse, while only 11% of Black voters 50 and over said the same.

“Young Black voters are extremely cynical, extremely frustrated, not just with Democrats, not just with Republicans, not even just with politics. They are cynical towards institutions that they felt like have failed them,” Woodbury said. “I like to remind leaders that we partner with that the summer of 2020 was not the civil rights era. … It was two years ago, and they’re still pissed off.”

‘We always vote’

As Bolton continued on his quest to reach voters in the central Georgia town of Waynesboro, there were signs of hope. A canvasser for more than a year, Bolton has noticed the generational divide: Usually, older people in small towns are energized and ready to vote, while it’s harder to convince younger people of the importance. 

“So many young people didn’t really care about voting, and that’s what made me want to influence them to at least register or learn about it,” Bolton said while driving through the predominantly Black town of nearly 5,500. 

“You oughta see them young people … ‘That stuff ain’t going to benefit me,’” he said. “I mean, I used to be like that, too, but then I had to realize you can’t really complain about or really have too much to say if you ain’t putting your voice in there.”

Shamarius “Sham” Bolton knocks on a resident’s door in Waynesboro, Georgia, on Sept. 21 to inform them of the upcoming election. (Aallyah Wright/Capital B)

Walking down a residential street, Bolton approached three homes. First home: no answer. Second home: no answer. At the third home, seconds after Bolton’s third knock, Brittany Drayton, 27, opened the door.

While Drayton’s sister was on Bolton’s list, she wasn’t. Bolton asked her questions anyway and handed her a door hanger with voting information.

“If you can pass this along and if you’re thinking about voting or you can do research on our website — ” he said, before she cut him off.

“We vote. We always vote.”

Since the age of 18, Drayton has voted in every election. She isn’t excited about voting, the candidates, or this upcoming election, she said. But she understands that voting is the “freest thing you gone have to do in this country.” 

Over the years, she’s helped register people to vote at Augusta Technical College, where she works. 

As a young adult, Drayton recalled casting her votes based on the advice of her parents and grandparents. Having more awareness of what’s going on in her community and across the country, she solely votes based on “what relates to me.”

“I always tell people if you don’t get along with anybody on the ballot, you got to think about what works for you,” she said. “I’m gonna always vote, so I can at least say I put my say so in and go in with what’s best for me.”

Over in the countryside of Waynesboro, 63-year-old Letha Scott said she votes in every election and plans to vote in the midterms, even though she’s “not sure who’s running in November.”

Peeking out of her screen door at her trailer home, Scott told Bolton she hopes the candidates can address issues of affordable housing, crime, and food prices.

“Everything is so much higher, you can’t hardly get nothing. And then the money they was giving us to help us out, they cut it out,” Scott said, referring to COVID stimulus payments. “They need to start it back because some of us ain’t gone be able to make it. I might be one of ‘em ‘cause I don’t get very much in Social Security and stuff. That’s a concern.”

Disenchantment with politicians and their limited action on issues that directly affect rural Georgians were common sentiments in the southern part of the state. Less talked about were the voting restrictions recently implemented by the state’s Republican leaders. 

Voting rights activists and Democratic candidates have widely criticized the passage of GOP-backed laws that some experts worry may have a dampening effect on participation by restricting the use of mobile voting units and banning provisions of food and drink to people in certain voting lines, among other new rules.

“Black Georgians have participated and the participation rates, tracking along with other states in the South, has steadily increased, but institutional interventions and these laws have made it more difficult for people to cast ballots,” Slaughter said. “In 2021 and even in 2018, when Stacey Abrams was up against Brian Kemp for governor, we did see increased participation, but it just isn’t enough given how rigid and how difficult these laws have been.” 

Kendall Strickland, a 29-year-old farmer in Lexington, Georgia, is a frequent voters and shares activists’ worries about voter suppression. It’s one reason he wants the state’s current leadership to get voted out, he said.

“I’m concerned about many of the lies and propaganda being spread and being so widely accepted by our elected officials and their participation in it,” Strickland said. “The views are getting more and more extreme and more blatant, and I’m ready for them to go.”