Stacy Efrat and her seven volunteers congregate in the LA Fitness parking lot at 10 o’clock on a Saturday morning. While some version of the group convenes almost every weekend, today is especially high stakes. They’ll be knocking on 500 doors in East Cobb, a section of the Atlanta suburbs that both parties hope to claim in the Jan. 5 Senate runoffs. Democratic candidates Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock are running to unseat Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue in two races that will determine which party controls the U.S. Senate.
It’s the last weekend to register new voters before the election — and Efrat is determined to keep Georgia blue.
Hands tucked in coat pockets, away from the nippy December wind, the canvassers have come to collect their assignments — an apartment complex and a series of building numbers — printed on wallet-size slips of paper. Over four years and three elections, Efrat has built a 400-person canvassing operation with a unique approach: In suburbs dominated by single-family homes, she heads straight for the apartment buildings.
Largely responsible for President-elect Joe Biden’s surprise win in Georgia, the Atlanta suburbs have become the most closely watched region in American politics. Cobb County, where Efrat lives, was once the center of tea party politics and the congressional home of former House speaker Newt Gingrich. But its demographics have changed significantly over just the past 10 years, as more people of color and recent immigrants have moved into the area and registered to vote: Biden won Cobb County by 14 points, up from Hillary Clinton’s two-point win in 2016.
Many of the new voters are moving into “garden apartment” buildings, built in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, said Ellen Dunham-Jones, a professor of urban design at Georgia Tech, who has studied the Atlanta suburbs. They have the cheapest rents around.
When she started canvassing in 2017, Efrat helped identify these complexes as an untapped gold mine for Democrats. With Cobb County newly competitive, Democrats had very little data on voters in the region, especially in apartment buildings where resident turnover is high. Volunteers could make a big difference in apartments, Efrat realized: Apartment renters are statistically less likely than homeowners to be registered to vote — and far more likely to be Democrats.
“We realized there was a major gap in voter outreach,” Efrat said. “We decided that since no one else was going door-to-door here, we would.”
Ben Davidson, who now canvasses with Efrat, lived in an East Cobb apartment during the Ossoff campaign. He kept waiting for Democratic volunteers to show up at his door, he said.
“While people in houses in the suburbs had their doors knocked three times in a row, I didn’t have mine knocked a single time,” he said. “Despite the fact that Ossoff allegedly had an army of volunteers in my area.”
Efrat is one of many Democratic activists in Georgia who got to work after President Trump won in 2016. She Googled “Cobb County Democrats,” unsure where to start. Led by former Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, Democrats across the state have mobilized to get out the vote and expose widespread voter suppression. Efrat is well-known in the region for her work in apartments, said Feroza Syed, who has teamed up with Efrat to register voters and canvas for the Democrats.
“Stacy has been doing this for years,” Syed said. “And she’s really showing people: It’s the way to get the most bang for your buck.”
The first step to canvassing apartments is scoping out the ones you want to hit, Efrat says. A manager at a large bank, Efrat will often sneak out of her office around lunchtime to drive around the area, looking for complexes she hasn’t been to before. While many are gated, she says, she can usually find her way in. Sometimes she slides in behind other cars. Once or twice, the letter carrier has slipped her the code.
Today, Efrat is taking her group to two apartment buildings built in 1983 and 1984. She is less interested in the shiny new lofts and buildings popping up near Atlanta’s suburban town centers, instead focusing on the garden apartments. These buildings were initially constructed to support White residents who fled downtown Atlanta, Dunham-Jones said. Almost exclusively White — with many outright banning Black residents through covenants — the garden apartments housed mostly unmarried young people, Durham-Jones said, featured in Playboy as hot spots for “swinging singles.”
Efrat typically knocks on 150 doors when she goes out on a weekend day. She rarely sees more than a handful of White people, she says. Most days she won’t come across anyone who says they’re planning to vote Republican.
“I don’t know that I’ve met one non-Democrat resident in my complex yet,” said Stephanie Donston, who lives in one of the apartment buildings where Efrat is canvassing today. Donston wasn’t interested in shelling out the 300,000 or 400,000 dollars it would have cost to buy a home in East Cobb. Many of her neighbors moved here for the same reason, she says.
“It’s not that people who live here don’t want to vote,” said Donston, who didn’t vote in Georgia until 2016. “It’s just not something on the top of their mind. So to have someone come in and get-out-the-vote in communities like mine, it definitely helps turn out the numbers.”
Going door-to-door this weekend, almost everyone is registered to vote, already prompted by one activist group or another. That’s a big change from 2017, when Efrat first started knocking on apartment building doors during Ossoff’s bid for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District. Before Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.) won the seat in 2016, the 6th District had been solidly Republican since 1979.
Volunteering for Ossoff, Efrat was dispatched to an East Cobb apartment complex with a list of likely Democratic voters, she said — but the list was outdated, with names that didn’t match the current tenants. She quickly ditched the list, and started going door-to-door. She was too late to register new voters, she said, but she promised herself she’d come back before the next election.
“People had no idea about that special election,” she said. “No one was talking to them.”
Efrat is now known as the “voter registration woman,” she said, tagged at least once a day on Facebook with a question about the registration logistics in Cobb County. Every time they go through the Dunkin' drive-through, she says, her 11-year-old daughter will beg her not to try to register the cashier.
When Efrat first got involved, there was “no infrastructure” for Democratic candidates, said Jacquelyn Bettadapur, the chair of Cobb County Democrats. No one thought a region like East Cobb was winnable for Democrats before 2016, she said.
“The Democratic Party said, ‘Oh we’re not going to do anything there because we can’t win,’ ” said Bettadapur, who has lived in Cobb County since 2010. If someone suggested canvassing in East Cobb, she said, someone else would ask, “Why bother?”
Data for apartment buildings continue to be particularly sparse, she said, because of high turnover. Several candidates for the state House and Senate have asked Efrat to share her spreadsheets, where she keeps information on every apartment complex she’s come across in East Cobb.
All the effort is paying off: Of all the doors Efrat knocks on Saturday, she only comes across one unregistered voter.
“Politics is on people’s radar in a way it’s never been before,” she says.
Now the challenge is making sure people know about the runoff. Some residents will quickly wave Efrat away, saying they already voted, though early voting doesn’t start until Dec. 14.
She’ll clarify that she’s talking about the Senate runoff, not the presidential election. Some are confused and start asking questions.
“That’s when we really have to dig deeper,” she says.
She tells them when and where they can vote, flashing her Warnock and Ossoff pin. Then she moves to the next door, hoping she’s done enough.