By Sam Bojarski
More than 1.6 million voters and counting have cast early ballots in Georgia’s elections for the U.S. Senate, a turnout that is on pace to break records for runoff voting in the state. As a potential voter, Marthe Bellamton Bien-Aimé of Atlanta, said racial justice will factor heavily into her decision.
As a business owner who trains medical assistants to work in skilled nursing and assisted living communities, it’s personal for Bien-Aimé.
“It’s mostly people from the Caribbean or from Africa who are there to care for these elderly people,” said Bien-Aimé. “These people are often forgotten.”
She has also noticed the racial rifts dividing America. “You see all kinds of foolishness happening when it comes to racism, discrimination and all this other stuff — it’s mindblowing,” she said.
Bien-Aimé is part of the fast-growing Haitian-American community in Georgia that could impact the outcome of the Senate runoff. Mirroring a national trend, Haitian-American leaders across the country are focusing their attention on Georgia, working to mobilize and educate voters in advance of the Jan. 5 election.
The U.S. Senate runoff pits Republican incumbents David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler against respective Democratic challengers Jon Ossoff and the Rev. Raphael Warnock. The results will determine which party controls the Senate and, by extension, shape how much the Biden administration is able to deliver.
Given that President-elect Joe Biden won the state of Georgia by about 12,000 votes, it will not take a huge margin to impact the outcome of the two Senate runoff races.
“If you’re polling them right now, they’d be within the margin of error,” Charles Bullock, a professor of political science at the University of Georgia, said in a Dec. 15 interview. “If a group comes out and it’s cohesive in its preferences, it could claim that it was the one that delivered the election.”
Plus, Georgia’s demographics and electorate are changing in ways that favor Democrats, Bullock said.
All registered voters in Georgia may participate in the Jan. 5 runoff election, and voters statewide can cast ballots for both Senate races. While the deadline to register has passed, in-person early voting will be open statewide through Dec. 30. Georgians can also vote by mail-in absentee ballot, and these ballots must be returned to county election offices by 7 p.m. on Jan. 5.
Haitian-Americans a growing bloc in Georgia
Between 2000 and 2019, Georgia’s electorate grew by about 1.9 million voters, with Black voters accounting for nearly half of this increase. The exact number of registered Haitian-American voters, whether born in the U.S. or elsewhere, is unclear. However, as of 2019, about 60,000 of the state’s eligible voters were born in the Caribbean, with Haiti named as the second-most common country of origin after Jamaica.
Population estimates also vary, but there are likely more than 80,000 Haitian-Americans living in Georgia. Twenty years ago, the estimated population was less than 35,000, meaning it has more than doubled since 2000.
Saurel Quettan, 59, has witnessed the community’s growth from his position as president of the Georgia Haitian-American Chamber of Commerce. In partnership with a national network of Haitian-American leaders called the Haitian American Voter Empowerment (HAVE) Coalition, the Chamber is currently coordinating efforts to turn out voters for the January election.
When Quettan, who resides in the Gwinnett County town of Snellville, first moved to the Atlanta metropolitan area in 1996, he noticed that Haitian restaurants had a hard time surviving in the city. But in the past decade, Quettan has witnessed at least five restaurants expand and thrive, an indicator of the growing Haitian population, he said.
Largely concentrated in Atlanta and its surrounding suburbs in Fulton, DeKalb, Cobb, Gwinnett and other counties, Georgia’s Haitian population contains both Haiti-born immigrants and their children born on U.S. soil. Quettan said the cultural and ethnic diversity of Atlanta has also attracted Haitian-American professionals from major cities like New York, Miami and Chicago.
By and large, the Haitian-American electorate is educated and highly engaged.
“The people of Haitian descent who have migrated to Atlanta over the last 10 years, a lot of the times, it’s people who actually go out and vote,” Quettan said. “Those are the types of people who are professionals, who occupy elevated positions in the halls of corporate America.”
Mobilizing Georgia’s Haitian-American voters
Despite its political participation, the Haitian-American electorate has not necessarily voted as a unified bloc. The HAVE Coalition and its partners in Georgia are looking to change that.
Voters like Bien-Aimé and Quettan said Haitian-American voters largely favor the Democratic Party. A significant minority are Republican, Quettan said.
“The community has not been politically organized until this current effort at organizing and creating an agenda that spells out our common interest,” said Quettan.
For the January election and beyond, HAVE aims to educate voters and entice them to vote. Along with Georgia-based businesses and community leaders, the coalition created the Georgia Haitian-American Citizens Facebook group in November, after the general election.
This month, on each Saturday through Dec. 19, the coalition has hosted virtual town hall events to encourage voter participation. In addition to Georgia elected officials, speakers and moderators for the events have included political leaders such as Karen Andre, the former Biden campaign senior adviser for Florida, and Vanessa Joseph, chair of the HAVE Coalition and city clerk of North Miami, Florida.
HAVE is also planning an outdoor, in-person rally for Jan. 2, although a time and place have not been confirmed.
Individuals have made contributions to candidates, but thus far efforts to rally the vote in Georgia have required “sweat equity,” Quettan said, or an investment of time by a dedicated group of local and national volunteers.
A model for mobilizing Haitian-Americans nationwide?
Out-of-state groups providing resources to mobilize Georgians is nothing new.
“Georgia is a place where you know that Democrats can hope to gain some ground,” Bullock said. “Liberal groups, as well as Democratically oriented individuals, they have been sending lots of money to these high-profile Georgia Democrats.”
In 2018, gubernatorial candidate Democrat Stacey Abrams raised $27 million for her election bid, much of it from outside Georgia. This year, her political action committee has collected donations of $500,000 or more from donors like the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), a national labor union with a large Haitian-American membership, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Going forward, organizers of the HAVE Coalition hope to consistently engage and educate the electorate in Georgia and other states, even when there is no upcoming election.
“We just have to make sure that all of those organizations are empowered to do that work year-round,” said Joseph, the HAVE chair. “There are organizations on the ground just about everywhere that there is a Haitian community.”
Until Jan. 5, the focus will be on Georgia, where Haitians have the power to change the political direction of the country. In her view, Bien-Aimé said the Democratic candidates better reflect the needs of the Haitian community.
“These are people who are promoting health, who are promoting justice,” Bien-Aimé said.
Both Ossoff and Warnock, the Democrats, support the Affordable Care Act, while the Republican incumbents have backed various efforts to end it, through lawsuits or congressional repeal. Amid the growing call for law enforcement reform, Ossoff in particular has called for a new Civil Rights Act to establish national standards for use of force.
Citing proposals to protect immigrants, the Democratic Senate candidates are currently the ones upholding the Haitian agenda, Quettan said, speaking for himself, not his organization.
Voting, however, is only the first step in advancing the Haitian-American agenda. Regardless of who wins, Quettan said, the Haitian community must continue to hold its political representatives accountable.
“That’s why the coalition will continue to educate, continue to mobilize [voters] and continue to participate, such that we hold their feet to the fire for actually delivering what they promised, in return for our votes,” said Quettan.