The story of Georgia’s Senate races showcases Emory professor’s use of data

By April Hunt | Emory Report | Feb. 9, 2021

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Sophomore Cara Waite and political scientist Bernard Fraga studied early voter demographic information prior to Georgia’s Senate runoff to better understand the historic election.

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Within hours of Georgia voters’ November decision to make Joe Biden the first Democratic president to win the state since 1992, a national narrative emerged that the suburbs – imagined as mostly white areas around Atlanta – would be key in the pending twin Senate runoffs.

Emory political scientist Bernard Fraga had been drafting a different story. It focused not only on his work as a voting behavior expert but also on his lived experience as one of the transplants behind the demographic shift in the state and the suburbs in question.

“Elections in Georgia are inseparable from race and ethnicity in both who votes and who doesn’t,” says Fraga, the author of “The Turnout Gap,” an analysis of those disparities in voter turnout.

Fraga explained that missing part of the story with daily analysis and graphics on Twitter. When 4.4 million Georgians voted in the January runoff – more than the 2016 Presidential election – the research showed it was the more than 1 million Black voters who pushed both Democrats to victory and with it, control of the U.S. Senate.

“The cool thing was to see the changes in real time of what was happening,” says Cara Waite, the sophomore political science major who worked with Fraga on his project. “I’ve learned a lot about how the changes in demographics influence the makeup of our government and shapes policy, and I am not the only one.”

Growing scholarship

Fraga arrived at Emory as part of a “cluster hire” of Latinx scholars in 2019. He was drawn in part to help expand the College’s distinction in the study of race through his background in interdisciplinary research. At Emory, he has joined a deep bench of well-known scholars studying the topic, including political science colleagues Andra Gillespie and Michael Leo Owens and historian Carol Anderson, professor and chair of African American studies.

Another part that drew him to Emory was the chance to conduct his work in the middle of a state undergoing a demographic transformation complicated by a historical racial divide. Together, those elements are making Emory a hub for the study of elections, race and politics.

“Going forward, I hope we can use this national moment to build a community of scholars on every level who can examine politics from a variety of angles,” Fraga says.

Waite, who had done both constituent work and campaign data collection for state representatives in her native Pennsylvania, is the first student Fraga plans to include in that community.

She reached out to Fraga as part of the SIRE program, looking to deepen her understanding of voter turnout.

They teamed up last summer, with Fraga providing the framework of how they could conduct statistical analysis of large-scale election data in Georgia.

Waite’s job was to collect the often-unpublished information from Georgia’s 159 counties. The work to uncover who had voted early, by absentee ballot or on Election Day was slow going. But Waite enjoyed it enough to be considering a minor in Quantitative Sciences.

“The most exciting part was connecting the idea that this data means people,” she says. “The future of politics, which is the future of our country, is data analysis so you can understand those people.” 

Reams of data real the story of turnout

At the end of fall semester, it became clear that Fraga and Waite were extracting the information needed for their story just in time for the runoff election to capture national attention.

Over winter break, Waite downloaded daily tallies of Georgians voting early or returning their absentee ballots, data made public by the Georgia Secretary of State.

Fraga focused on techniques, writing the code that created graphics showing how those voter totals broke out by race and age compared to the general election. The visualizations began to show that while Asian-American, Black and Latino voters were casting early ballots at record rates, white voters were tapering off for the January runoff.

That was the first hint that the Republican candidates, who historically had the advantage in runoffs, were in trouble. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue went on to narrowly lose to Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff, respectively.

Fraga, routinely offering his expertise to national media throughout the campaigns, relied on the updated data when explaining the results.

“When I look at what happened here this year, I see highly engaged efforts to mobilize every single person who can vote,” Fraga says. “I think and hope we will see more of that engagement not just by campaigns but with non-partisan and educational organizations. It’s good for both parties if everyone’s voice is heard.”

Such engagement will be important in ongoing data collection, as will refining the 2020-2021 voter information. Fraga also plans to use the current data in classes starting next fall, for students to conduct their own analyses.

As with Waite, he will help students with framework and technique. In turn, he expects that students will offer perspectives he may not have thought of or have time to do.

“With so much good information, and so many different things to look at, we are in the perfect place to study race, politics and elections more broadly,” Fraga says. “The more the merrier when you have this tremendous opportunity to understand and interpret American politics and our future.”