Tufts students volunteer, vote in Georgia runoff races

“I voted” stickers in English and Spanish are pictured. Courtesy Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)

First-year Violet Kopp has been an engaged Democrat since middle school, but she wasn’t filled with joy when she heard that President Joe Biden had won the 2020 presidential election on Nov. 7. “My first thought was ‘thank God,’” she said. “And then my second thought was ‘if we don’t have the Senate, it almost doesn’t matter who’s president’ … with the partisan gridlock we’re experiencing in this country right now, Biden would just not be able to function as a president and get anything done [without Democrats controlling the Senate].” 

Once it became clear that Biden had won the presidential election, heads turned to the Senate, where 50 seats were certain to be held by Republicans and 48 would be held by Democrats or left-leaning independents. The two remaining seats would be determined by two runoff races in Georgia, one a regular election and the other a special election to replace retired Sen. Johnny Isakson. To control the Senate, Democrats would need to win both Georgia races, leaving then-Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to cast the deciding vote in cases of an equal division of the Senate. Eventually, with the support of Tufts students and thousands of others across the country, both Sen. Jon Ossoff and Sen. Raphael Warnock won their races.

Seeing the difficult situation Biden would face without Democratic control of the Senate, Kopp decided to take action, making phone calls to Georgia voters and sending them postcards in support of Ossoff and Warnock, who were running against Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler, respectively. Kopp sees politics as one important way to have an impact on the world around her, using climate change as an example.

“Change needs to happen on such local scales, just … in the choices we make in our lives, and those individual choices need to be reflected in legislation so, for instance, sure, I will use less plastic and I will take public transportation, instead of [driving] when I can, but if there aren’t strict climate laws in place that expand public transportation and reduce companies’ abilities to produce plastic and fossil fuels, then my individual actions don’t have much of an impact,” she said.

Despite her enthusiasm, Kopp, a Brooklyn native, shared one major reservation about her work surrounding the election in Georgia. 

“Something that made me kind of uncomfortable about working on the Georgia campaigns is I’ve been to Georgia once [and] I don’t really know anyone there,” she said. “I don’t feel like as a New Yorker I have the authority to speak to what Georgians want, just like I don’t think that a Georgian has the authority to speak to what New Yorkers want.” Some Tufts Georgians themselves, though, didn’t mind the national attention, instead emphasizing that the experience of having the whole country focused on them was strange and exciting but also overwhelming.

“It was pretty exciting to see outside help coming in,” said sophomore Olivia Gallant, an Atlantan who voted for Ossoff and Warnock in the runoff. “It just shows that the whole nation was riding on this election, and I don’t know if it didn’t get so much publicity throughout the whole United States I don’t know if the result would have been the same.”

Sophomore Maeve McGean, another Atlantan who also voted for both Democrats, agreed that the national interest was exciting but caveated that it wasn’t all pleasant for people living in Georgia.

“In the weeks leading up to [the election], it was definitely getting very annoying,” they said. “So much money was being poured into the campaigns that there was just commercial after commercial after commercial of the different people who were running … You could not escape it.”

Sophomore Mark Lannigan used his time over winter break to phonebank for the Democratic Party of Georgia. He reached out to young people in particular, in partnership with the Young Democrats of Georgia.

Like McGean, Lannigan worried that this barrage of advertising could have the opposite effect than intended.

“I think what a lot of people were struggling with was an oversaturation of the information,” Lannigan said. “People heard so much about [the runoff] that it just became commonplace, and it didn’t exactly have the same effect [of] ‘Oh, I actually need to go out there and vote.’”

In other words, because Georgians were hearing so much about the runoff races, Lannigan suspects that they may have internalized the elections as a national issue and with that, they may have forgotten their major role as voters. Lannigan said that most of the people he reached were already decided and explained that he was just encouraging them to vote but not convincing them to vote for certain candidates. 

As Kopp explained, many campaigns specifically target voters who were likely to vote for Democrats rather than trying to convince undecided or Republican voters, which was also a more effective way to spend their time.

Another challenge faced by all candidates in the 2020 election and its runoffs were the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It was just so hard to do outreach, and so much of campaigning and specifically getting those who aren’t inherently political on board is the flashy yard signs and the public events and the giving out free T-shirts and all of that, so that was a real challenge that both the Georgia campaigns had,” Kopp said. 

In these ways COVID-19 made civic engagement difficult, however, it also allotted people the time to work on the campaign. 

“On the other hand … the two Georgia campaigns were really able to use the awfulness of the pandemic to their advantage and be like we know you’re doing nothing tonight and so come work for us,” Kopp said. “People are spending more time on social media because of the pandemic … Jon Ossoff’s TikTok blew up … it was pretty empowering to see the way that the campaigns really responded to the challenges of today and capitalized on them in a positive way.”

Because the election happened over winter break, when students were away from the campus and their peers, it was more difficult to mobilize many students in volunteer efforts. For many politically active students, this was compounded by exhaustion from working and volunteering on general election races. Tufts Democrats president Rhys Murphy explained that because of the break, Tufts Democrats didn’t campaign as a group, and a representative for Tufts Republicans wrote in an electronic message to the Daily, “I am not aware of any [volunteer] involvement at [present].”

For those Tufts students who did engage in the election process, though, it was a rewarding and meaningful experience.

“I really was not expecting Ossoff and Warnock to win, and [when] they both did, it was so gratifying to know that the organizing that we were doing worked, so gratifying to hear that there are so many odds that went against,” Kopp said. “The fact that Georgia elected not only two Democrats, but a Black man and a Jewish man is pretty phenomenal given the state’s history with racism and anti-Semitism.”