Out of Georgia’s roughly 1.5 million unregistered voting-age residents, as many as 900,000 are minorities. Democrats have long wanted to register more people of color in their quest to flip the state from red to blue, and, in recent years, no one’s done more to lead that charge than Georgia House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams. At the end of 2013, the Atlanta lawmaker founded an initiative called the New Georgia Project that set an ambitious goal of registering at least 120,000 minority voters across the state by the 2014 midterm elections.
Though she raised at least $3 million in donations—more money than Barack Obama spent in Georgia during either of his presidential campaigns—Abrams’ effort ultimately registered just 46,000 people. Now, with less than a year until the 2016 election, Abrams is doubling down. The goal this time? To register 170,000 minority voters between now and the upcoming presidential election, as well as to persuade 600,000 infrequent voters to get out to the polls next November. With an even higher hurdle than two years ago, Abrams is looking to raise not $3 million this time, but $10 million. Call it the new New Georgia Project.
These details are outlined in a pair of fundraising memos obtained by Atlanta magazine. Abrams has asked Democracy Alliance—a national progressive network of donors that Politico called the “closest thing the left has to the vaunted Koch brothers’ political network”—to donate up to $5.9 million for the New Georgia Project and contribute another $4.35 million for Voter Access Institute, a little-known progressive advocacy group she founded last year. Her funding requests aren’t surprising; one of the Democracy Alliance’s members, Democratic financier George Soros, wrote Abrams’s political action committee, Georgia Next, Inc., a $500,000 check in 2014 to fund her voter registration efforts. But the two requests are ones that, considering the funder’s secretive reputation, raise even more questions about the New Georgia Project, which has been criticized for its lack of transparency and its failure to live up to its expectations.
“She hasn’t been open and transparent,” state Sen. Vincent Fort, another Democrat from Atlanta, told us. “Her funders don’t know where her money went. More importantly, the public doesn’t know where the money went.” Mayor Kasim Reed has also questioned the need for the New Georgia Project.
“I don’t believe nor did I believe that the New Georgia Project is the model [for voter registration],” Reed told the Atlanta Journal Constitution last June. “I think that you have professional organizations that are experts at building the voter database in states, and I think that they should be a part of the overall political campaign.
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp even investigated allegations that the New Georgia Project submitted dozens of fraudulent voter registration applications in the months leading up to last year’s vote. In a lawsuit that eventually got thrown out, Abrams countered that Kemp, a Republican, failed to process voter registration applications to suppress minority turnout. A spokesperson for Kemp said the investigation is still ongoing.
Then there’s the New Georgia Project’s track record. The two prominent Democrats running for statewide office in 2014—Michelle Nunn and Jason Carter—were partly relying on her efforts, but both candidates ended up getting clobbered on Election Day. Despite Abrams’ efforts, results from Votebuilder, an election database used by Democrats, show that 9,200 fewer minorities statewide were registered to vote in 2014 than during the previous midterm election in 2010, a year in which hardly any money was spent on voter registration drives.
Efforts to register more minority voters in Georgia are nothing new. Going back to the ‘70s, African American state lawmakers, such as longtime Democratic state Sen. David Lucas from Macon, have tried to bolster access to the polls for minority residents, many of whom were voting for the first time following the passage of the Voting Rights Acts in 1965. Lucas said the New Georgia Project did not seek his input, nor that of other longtime voter registration advocates. “We were kept in the dark, period,” Lucas said earlier this year. “[We didn’t know] how much money was raised, who they paid to go out to do the work. We literally didn’t know anything.”
Abrams intends for her latest iteration of the New Georgia Project to be a constellation of projects scattered throughout the state. Voter registration efforts are centered in six cities, where, according to one memo, she plans to set up field offices with dozens of paid staffers. A series of smaller civic engagement projects are designed to push people to the polls. Her staff hosted a “hack-a-thon” where teams of computer programmers competed over a 48-hour period to create apps to make it easier to vote (#UnlockTheBox), held a five-day training course for applicants participating in a crash course to become campaign operatives (B.L.U.E.), and launched a series of citizen academies designed to demystify public policy at the local level (Advocates for Change Institute). The course even gave ACI graduates their own Apple laptops.
“It was Oprah Winfrey redux!” ACI graduate Will Curry wrote in a Facebook post that included an image of his new computer and a graduation certificate. “You get a laptop! EVERYBODY GETS A LAPTOP.”
Outside of the New Georgia Project, which is a subsidiary of Abrams’s longtime 501(c)(3) nonprofit called Third Sector Development, the lawmaker in July 2014 registered a 501(c)(4) advocacy organization called Voter Access Institute, Inc. According to the group’s self-description, Voter Access Institute is a “multi-year effort to substantially increase progressive power by focusing on voter engagement and mobilization,” working on issues such as Medicaid expansion, equality, and education—issues that are aligned with the House minority leader’s legislative agenda.
Unlike work done through her elected office, though, much of Abrams’s voter registration efforts are not subject to state open records laws. William Perry, founder of Georgia Ethics Watchdog, believes the lawmaker should make her financial records from her voter registration work public, especially now that more than a year has passed since the 2014 election. One issue that concerns Perry is the lawmaker’s potential ability to use different funding sources—which include a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, a 501(c)(4) advocacy group, a political PAC, and personal campaign funds—to further the cause of voting registration. Similar transactions have continued this year: On May 1, Abrams’s PAC received a $35,000 contribution from philanthropist Philip Munger, the son of top Warren Buffett aide Charles Munger. Three days later, the PAC contributed the exact same amount to Georgia Leaders Campaign, a nonfederal account operated by the Democratic Party of Georgia that has traditionally helped support Democratic candidates running for statehouse seats.
“It gives cause to worry when there’s someone stirring so many pots,” Perry said. “In a perfect world, anything you’re doing that would influence a campaign or an election should be disclosed. It’s a glaring example of what makes people sick about politics.”
Nse Ufot, executive director for New Georgia Project, declined to share a copy of Third Sector Development’s latest financial records. “Our 990 [form] will be publicly available in the coming months,” she told us in an email. When asked about her latest fundraising effort, Abrams declined to comment.