ATLANTA (AP) — Georgia's electorate is changing fast, state officials said Tuesday, underscoring a shift that Democrats see as critical to making gains in a state dominated by Republicans.
The total number of people registered to vote in Georgia has dropped by nearly 40,000 since the last election. But of the 183,000 voters added to the rolls since last March, only a third identified themselves as white, a key statistic in the race for an open Senate seat and the national battle for control of the chamber in the final two years of President Barack Obama's time in office.
The final voter registration totals were released Tuesday, two weeks before the Nov. 4 election. Democrats see candidate Michelle Nunn as one of their best chances nationally to pick up a seat and millions have been spent by both sides on voter registration efforts in Georgia with an eye toward the 2016 presidential race. Challenging her is Republican businessman David Perdue in a state with a political environment that favors the GOP.
But Democrats see opportunity in the new numbers. The party has long argued there are an estimated 800,000 unregistered blacks, Latinos and Asians in Georgia and thus a rich trove of potential support. The New Georgia Project, along with other groups, collected nearly 120,000 voter registration forms since March.
"The voters we need to register are doing so," said Justin Barasky, spokesman for the Senate Democrats' campaign arm. "The voters Republicans need aren't."
Republicans took offense.
"It's a troubling assumption that the Republican Party or any party is one group of people or another," said Georgia GOP spokesman Ryan Mahoney. "The Georgia Republican Party has spent considerable time, resources and volunteers looking to identify like-minded voters and turn them out."
Democrats argue the registration trends continue to make the Georgia electorate less white, a net advantage for the party. The number of registered voters who are white has dropped from nearly 63 percent of the state's total in 2008 to 58 percent as of Oct. 1. Meanwhile, the percentage of voters who identify as black has remained a fairly steady 30 percent, while other non-white classifications — including Hispanics, Asians, "other" and "unknown" — are climbing as a total share of the voter rolls.
But black voters don't always vote at robust levels.
In 2010, when Republicans claimed every statewide office and large majorities in the General Assembly, 441,000 fewer black voters cast ballots than two years earlier when Obama was elected. That number rebounded in 2012, and both Democrats and Republicans are targeting all voters who tend to sit out elections in non-presidential years.
More than a year ago, Georgia Republicans launched what's been called an unprecedented state effort to identify such voters, connect with them, learn what issues they care about and follow up with calls, visits or mailers to persuade them to vote. Mahoney said Republicans have been reaching out to people across race, gender and economic lines and were also encouraged by the increase in registered voters.
Jared Thomas, spokesman for Secretary of State Brian Kemp, said the drop-off was the result of deaths, people moving out of state and those taken off the rolls after being inactive for the last two federal election cycles. There was a similar drop between 2008 and 2010 and then a wave of voters added in 2012. Of the state's nearly 10 million residents, just over 6 million are currently registered.
The fight over new voters has erupted in several testy exchanges in recent weeks and a legal dispute between a voter registration group known as the New Georgia Project and the Secretary of State's Office over how forms have been handled. The head of that group, Democratic state Rep. Stacey Abrams of Atlanta, said she was concerned about the overall drop in voters while the state population continues to grow.
"What we should all be asking is what happened to the voters we have lost and how do we get them back?" Abrams said in a statement.