“I was just so excited, because I didn’t have to wait another two or four years to vote,” Ponomarev said. “It was happening right now, and it was happening in my home state. I feel like I’m finally having a say in government.”
Ponomarev is one of thousands of new voters coming of age between November 3 and January 5.
“It’s a sweet spot of individuals,” says Ariel Singleton, the lead Black youth vote organizer at the grassroots group Georgia STAND-UP. “We’re targeting young voters because that opens up a whole new arena, a whole new field of people who are eligible to vote who weren’t eligible to vote before.”
Singleton believes they are motivated voters, especially those young voters of color, who were central to Georgia’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“In this past year, to see so many things unfolding and having an opinion without being necessarily able to vote,” says Singleton, about the frustration of those still-17-year-old voters on November 3. In the runoffs, she believes they will channel that activism toward January 5.
“That’s why they’re target rich.”
Ariyana Gooden, who will turn 18 on December 21, is one of those new voters, anxious to be heard. She caught the spark of community engagement from a youth leadership program through an Atlanta area nonprofit, Usher’s New Look, and then in the summer saw Black youth fill the streets during Black Lives Matter protests.
Gooden longed to vote for the first Black woman to run for Vice President, Kamala Harris, who is also a graduate from Gooden’s college, Howard University.
“Now that I’m able to,” said Gooden about voting in the runoffs, “it’s just a whole another level of excitement at this point. I just want to be a part of this group of young people voting to make a change, make a difference.”
“That is an extremely sought-after group, because they’re voters out of thin air,” said Edward Aguilar of Students for Tomorrow, a grassroots group run by and aiming to reach new voters. Aguilar founded the group with Michael Giusto, both seniors at Alpharetta High School.
“We’ve been able to get thousands of Republicans to pledge to vote across the aisle and vote for Ossoff this election cycle because we’re having them vote as students, rather than Republicans or Democrats,” said Aguilar.
Ossoff and Warnock both have student policies listed on their campaign websites, addressing college debt, technical college and climate change. In campaign events, both have directly talked about the youth vote and how control of the US Senate could help forward policies that young voters care about.
The Democrats need to flip both Georgia seats to bring the Senate to a 50-50 tie. Vice President-elect Harris would be the tiebreaker.
Young voters understand this, Ossoff told CNN in an interview.
“Georgia has become younger and more diverse every year for the last decade,” said Ossoff. “Young voters in Georgia are among the most committed and passionate of anybody. And this coalition that we’re building — a lot of it is driven by youthful activism.”
His most viewed video, showing edited pictures of him with Warnock on the campaign trail, garnered 1.4 million likes on the platform. “We didn’t know it was going to be quite such a hit,” Ossoff said. “But it’s gathered a huge following because there’s so much interest among young people in the outcome here and really an understanding of the stakes and a sense of hope about what we can do after we win.”
Republicans bank on conservative numbers in Georgia
But compared with their national peers, Georgia’s youth is more conservative. CNN exit polls show that nationally, 65% of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Biden, while 31% voted for Trump.
Georgia’s sitting senators may be banking on those numbers.
Incumbent Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler have been slow to court their youngest constituents and relatively mum about policies that directly affect them, such as student debt. Not a problem for 19-year-old Gavin Swafford, who says, “College debt is incurred upon people by themselves. That is not a senator’s issue.”
Swafford was at a crowded Atlanta art gallery, where a Republican “Save America” event was taking place among colorful portraits of George Washington and Ronald Reagan. Swafford was among the youngest guests. “You are seeing the newest generation of conservative Republicans come to the forefront of this race,” he claimed. “There are people my age who are concerned about our country.”
Eighteen-year-old Madison Tatham said about voting for Perdue and Loeffler, “A lot of my friends are Republicans, so it’s nice seeing them get all excited about voting. I know they’re very pro-life, which I support a lot, and they’re for the Second Amendment, so those are two things I’m very passionate about.”
Still, teens like Tatham and Swafford remain the minority in the deep blue counties of the Atlanta metro area that narrowly flipped the state for Biden last month.
“There’s so many people that are being almost entirely ignored,” he said. “It’s like the Falcons are playing a football game and they’re going to throw it in the last few yards when they really stood a chance of winning in the first place. They might have even been in the lead.”