In mid-December, a few weeks before Georgia’s upcoming January 5th run-off election, Schanceline Nanje was in Marietta, knocking on doors on behalf of Family Friendly Action, a political-action committee working to elect politicians who support what it calls “the care economy”: child care, elder care, health care, and paid family leave. Nanje, who immigrated to the United States from Cameroon eighteen years ago, and recently became a citizen, is a home health aide and student at Kennesaw State University. She is twenty-nine. The November general election was the first time she was able to vote. “I took a lot of time doing research on all the candidates,” she told me. “Health care was very important to me, because a few years back my grandma passed away, and there was so much care she could have gotten but didn’t.”
In July, Joe Biden released a seven-hundred-and-seventy-five-billion-dollar plan with the tongue-twisting title “Mobilizing American Talent and Heart to Create a 21st Century Caregiving and Education Workforce.” Biden’s plan aims to expand child care and services for the elderly and the disabled, and elevate the status and pay of caregivers as well. But those goals will remain aspirational without a Democratic majority in the Senate, which is why Nanje and a dozen other Family Friendly Action canvassers have been knocking on a hundred doors a day in the suburbs north of Atlanta. Their work is financed by the Women Effect Action Fund, a group that promotes economic gender equality and women’s rights. Lisa Guide, the fund’s co-founder, told me that the organization was targeting the Georgia races to show both voters and elected officials the enormous impact that access to child care, as well as services for the elderly and disabled, have on women’s personal and professional lives. “We’re in Georgia to make sure Georgia voters know which Senate candidates are going to help them through our national care crisis—and who aren’t,” Guide said. “And we want elected officials and policymakers to understand that voters really care about these issues so they end up rising up the ladder for both Democrats and Republicans.”
Three years ago, during the Virginia governor’s race, Guide’s group set out to test the hypothesis that care issues could drive votes in elections. “These are very core economic issues that have been marginalized and are largely unseen,” she said. “So our idea was to put them front and center in an election and see if they would be motivating in any way.” The organization sent canvassers to knock on ten thousand doors in nine Virginia election districts and talk to women about the care issues they face at home and at work. A post-election study by the Analyst Institute estimated that these personal conversations caused an eleven per cent vote swing to the Democratic gubernatorial candidate, Ralph Northam, who won, compared to a control group.
The success of the Virginia experiment persuaded Guide and her staff leaders to mount canvassing operations in ten battleground states during the 2020 general election. Their goal was to engage with suburban women—especially those who had voted for third parties, voted for Donald Trump in 2016, or didn’t vote at all—who might be persuaded that Biden’s commitment to care issues was in their and their families’ best interests. It worked again. A post-election poll of two thousand voters commissioned by the fund found that more than thirty per cent of those surveyed said that care issues influenced how they voted. The poll also found that the kinds of programs in Biden’s plan appealed to voters: seventy-four per cent said they supported them, including fifty-seven per cent of Trump supporters. More than thirty per cent said that COVID-19 made care issues more visible and important to them, and, in Guide’s estimation, that the Trump Administration’s mishandling of the pandemic gave voters the impetus and permission to cross party lines.
Guide told me that her group did not plan to fund a canvassing operation in Georgia for the Senate runoffs, even after it became clear that the Democratic candidates, Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, both supporters of Biden’s care policies, would be challenging the Trump supporters Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue for control of the Senate. Other groups, like New Georgia Project and Black Voters Matter, were well established in Georgia, and, as my colleague Charles Bethea has written, their intensive groundwork was largely responsible for helping Biden turn the state blue in November.
After final election tallies from Georgia emerged, a curious disparity caught the eye of Guide and her staff. In the Atlanta suburbs, a number of Georgians who voted for Biden did not vote in the Senate races. It was not clear who, specifically, these voters were, but if they were like voters in Wisconsin, Michigan, and the other battleground states, they might be open to a pitch about the need for policies and programs that increase care and caregiving benefits. Reversing the fund’s earlier decision, Guide and her aides decided to fund a door-knocking effort in the Senate runoffs. In races that were destined to be close, tapping into a well of latent, potential voters that other groups might not be reaching could be decisive. Certainly, it couldn’t hurt.
A political-consulting firm hired by the fund came up with a list of fifty thousand voters who it thought might be convinced to vote for Warnock and Ossoff if they understood what was at stake. A political staffing company put out a call for people willing to spend six hours a day trying to engage voters in a conversation about the importance of paid family leave, child care, and home health assistance. A team of twelve canvassers agreed to try and knock on those fifty thousand doors in twenty-nine days. They are a diverse group: women and men, white people and people of color, political independents as well as registered Democrats and Republicans.
Another group focussed on care issues that canvassed for Biden in the general election in Georgia and is now knocking on doors in the runoffs is Care in Action, a sister organization of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. For years, it had been organizing around caregiving issues in the state, primarily with—and on behalf of—home health aides, house cleaners, and child-care providers, most of whom are women of color and immigrants. In the parlance of electioneering, the Family Friendly Action canvassers are engaged in a persuasion campaign, and not focussed, like Care in Action, on mobilizing the voters with whom it already has a relationship to make sure that they cast a ballot.
Though the two organizations share the same short-term political goal, Care in Action has a fundamentally different mission: raising the status of the essential workers of the care economy in American politics and society. “A huge part of what we’re trying to do is make these women visible and to make people understand that they deserve dignity and respect,” the organization’s executive director, Jess Morales Rocketto, told me. “I think that that is very clearly expressed through our political program. Frankly, we want nothing less than remaking the political system entirely.”
In 2018, Care in Action established a voter-outreach effort in Georgia to help Stacey Abrams become the first Black woman governor. When she lost, the group continued organizing domestic workers there, and by 2020 had one of the largest voter-contact programs in the state. In the course of 2020, it made eight million calls to prospective voters. Amid the pandemic, the group has also been trying to highlight the work of parents and other family caregivers, which was largely unseen until COVID-19 shut schools and sent many children home to learn on their own. “One of the things that we talk about is helping people understand that care is not just a personal responsibility,” Morales Rocketto said. “It’s a collective responsibility. And I think the pandemic has made it really, really clear how hard it is to do it alone and how little support infrastructure there is for families. Because of the pandemic, we are seeing just a seismic shift in how people are thinking about care.”
For the Senate runoff election, Care in Action has knocked on more than nine hundred thousand doors in and around Atlanta and in the state’s rural “Black Belt,” so called, initially, for its rich, fertile soil, and now home to a significant number of poor Black Georgians. Morales Rocketto described it as an all-out mobilization effort. “We’re really focussed on turning out Black women to vote, women who have voted infrequently, or even never before,” she said. “When they turn out, they have the ability to transform the electorate.”
Nanje and other field workers from Family Friendly Action expressed optimism about Tuesday’s election. Angela Green, who, like Nanje, has been knocking on doors in Marietta, told me, “I have been able to convince some people who felt as though their vote didn’t matter,” she said. “I have also run into those who are on the fence, you know. Whether or not they voted in the prior election, Republican or Democratic, I kind of was able to sway them over.” In the past, Green had been passionate about care issues herself, she said, but the need for paid family leave really hit home in December, when her twenty-year-old nephew was killed in a car crash. His parents had to go back to work before they could properly grieve the loss of their child. “Families need to be able to take the time off in order to heal or, you know, if they have a baby, or whatever the case is, in order to be the best that they can be when they go back to work,” she said.