ALBANY, Ga. — Johnnie Armstrong says he has voted in Albany since 1955, so he remembers an era when local officials tried to keep Black voters like him from the ballot box.
"They'd give you a bottle, a big thing with a lot of marbles in it," he says. "You guess how many marbles, then you can vote."
Armstrong says it felt remarkable that about 65 years later he got to help elect Georgia's first Black U.S. senator, Democrat Raphael Warnock.
Even better, Armstrong says, is Warnock spending a muggy August morning taking selfies with voters on Albany's Ray Charles Plaza as he campaigns for a full term in Washington.
Until recently, a statewide candidate spending significant time in this thinly populated, substantially Black, southwest corner of Georgia was virtually unheard of.
For years, Democrats failed to win statewide in Georgia. The ground began to shift about four years ago when Stacey Abrams made her first bid for governor.
"Atlanta cannot live without Albany, and Albany cannot live without the investments that come from Atlanta," Abrams said in 2017, launching her campaign, not in Atlanta, but in Albany. "We need to talk to those forgotten voters, the ones who are rarely talked about. I am running for governor because we need a governor who comes from a town like Albany. Where we begin does not dictate what we become."
Instead of bending over backward to court more conservative voters, Abrams focused on activating non-voters and irregular voters, especially people of color in overlooked parts of the state.
"I know everybody looks at Atlanta as the African American mecca," says Albany Commissioner Demetrius Young. "But if you follow this blue wave in Georgia, it came right through Albany down into Southwest Georgia. We need to hold the ground that we've gained."
Abrams' strategy got her within 55,000 votes of the governor's mansion in 2018, losing to Republican Brian Kemp. Two years later, it helped deliver Georgia for Joe Biden and flip two Senate seats, giving Democrats control of the U.S. Senate.
Voters want change
Young is glad candidates come to Southwest Georgia now, but he says they also need to deliver on their promises for a region that's not benefited as much from the state's economic growth.
"With the pandemic, it ripped wide open the disparities we knew were already there," he says.
After several grueling election cycles, many voters are tired and organizers are trying to combat that.
On a drizzly Monday, Shayla Jackson, an Albany native with the nonpartisan New Georgia Project, canvasses a block of small homes, where backyard chickens roam freely. After striking out at a dozen or so addresses, Lavasha Hooks opens her door for Jackson, with a toddler hiding behind her legs.
Hooks says the economy, racial justice and the pandemic are all on her mind. She plans to vote but she hasn't thought much about the midterms yet. She says she doesn't think politicians have done much to improve life in her corner of Georgia.
"The wages are too low in my current job," Hooks says. "And everything is more expensive."
Jackson walks Hooks through finding her polling location and asks if she will need a ride to the polls. The New Georgia Project, which does not canvas for candidates or parties, was founded by Abrams in 2014 as part of her strategy to expand Georgia's electorate. Abrams is no longer affiliated with the organization.
More than 50,000 people have registered in Southwest Georgia since 2018. The majority are non-white, the New Georgia Project says.
"Look, for the most part, the rural characterization is true," says Dante Chinni, a researcher with the American Communities Project who has studied rural African American counties in the South. "Rural America tends to vote for Trump, tends to be Republican. But when you divide the vote further, you see these subtleties and nuances."
Nearly a quarter of rural Americans were people of color in 2020, according to an analysis by the Brookings Institution. And while the country's rural population is shrinking overall, its diversity is growing.
Still, the biggest shifts from red to blue in 2020 were in the suburbs of metro Atlanta, where newcomers have poured in from out of state and where then-President Donald Trump repelled many moderate voters.
And even while Democrats in racially diverse rural communities in the South turned out more voters in the 2020 presidential election than in 2016, turnout for Trump soared even more in these same counties, driven by white, rural voters.
"This is a both/and strategy. I think some people want to use it as an either/or," says Andra Gillespie, a professor of political science at Emory University.
"Even though Democrats expect to lose in rural parts of the state, they can't underperform there. Because if they underperform there, they end up losing the election."
Life and death challenges
Outside Albany, city blocks give way to acres of cotton and peanut crops. An hour up US-82 is the town of Cuthbert, Ga.
Its only hospital closed a few years ago.
"When the hospital closed, it became like a sudden death to us," says Rhonda Jones-Johnson, who used to work as a nurse there. "It broke some of our lives."
This spring, Jones-Johnson spoke alongside Abrams, who held her first formal campaign stop in front of the shuttered hospital. At the event, Jones-Johnson described how her aunt died waiting to access care.
"We had only one ambulance in the county," Jones-Johnson said. "No emergency care. If only we had a hospital open here, I truly believe her life could have been saved."
Both parties are trying to convince voters far from metro Atlanta that they're listening. Republicans, like Gov. Brian Kemp and Senate candidate Herschel Walker, are regularly barnstorming whiter rural counties, rallying their most reliable voters.
Democrats hope to slice into the GOP's margins, particularly in racially diverse rural counties. Warnock has emphasized the plight of rural Black farmers. Abrams prominently highlights rural hospital closures as she pitches her plan to expand Medicaid.
Elections may hinge on the suburbs, but candidates need every vote
Youth organizer Maggie Bell appreciates the specific challenges this region faces. She also says the rural South is more diverse and vibrant than outsiders may imagine.
Bell graduated in the spring from Albany State University, a historically Black college.
"When people think of rural voters, they think of farmers, white people," Bell says, as Albany State's Marching Rams band parades by. "But really, there are Black people down here — Black people who want to be part of the election process, but they don't get a knock at their door."
Bell feels the weight of history in Albany, too. In 1961, Black residents in Albany launched what's considered the country's first mass civil rights movement to desegregate an entire city.
Bell says she's optimistic about what can happen as voters in this stretch of Georgia harness their power. And she says campaigns in other states should take note, as Democrats nationwide have struggled to win rural voters.
"Pay attention to these counties," she says. "Because once you engage and mobilize Black and brown people in these counties, you will actually see your work come to fruition."
This fall will be another test. Two months out, Abrams is trailing Kemp in polls. Warnock is slightly ahead of Walker in averages.
Both races are extremely tight.
On Election Night, cable TV anchors will spend a lot of time zooming in on their touch-screen maps on metro Atlanta, picking apart the returns from counties like Fulton, Cobb, Gwinnett and DeKalb.
But Bell still believes organizers have to work for every vote, especially in counties like hers, and especially in a state where election outcomes have become famously close.