At least 157 million people voted this year, the highest turnout in more than a century.
Few people are happier about this than a group of Atlanta strippers and dancers who made a viral get-out-the-vote ad aimed at persuading Black men to go to the polls. But with Georgia’s Senate races facing a runoff vote, the women say the work is far from done, and they are calling on young people to turn out once more.
Some of them had never been involved in politics before — but after playing a part in President-elect Joe Biden’s upset victory in the state, they say they’re not done talking.
“I’ve been encouraging everyone to register to vote quickly,” said Coy Malone, who was one of the dancers featured in the “Get Your Booty to the Poll” ad, which went viral in September. The runoff will be held on Jan. 5, and anyone who turns 18 before then is eligible to vote. “You know, calling all Capricorns! Calling all Sagittariuses, Scorpios, Libras. If you turn 18, or will be 18 by January 5th, you can vote.”
Biden was certified as the winner of the presidential election in Georgia on Nov. 20, despite unfounded allegations of fraud from President Donald Trump. It is the first time a Democrat has won the state in nearly 30 years. “I feel accomplished because of what we made happen in Georgia, making them a blue state, etc. … We basically influenced the Democratic Party,” said Jenny Gang, another dancer from the ad who lives in South Carolina but works at a strip club in Atlanta. “But I’m still a little confused about how things are going to go.”
With no one winning a majority of the votes in either of the state’s Senate races, Democrats Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff will now face off against Republican Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, respectively, in the runoff. The races have become an early test for Democrats, who would win control of the Senate if they win both.
As an army of strategists and political operatives descend on the state, the ad’s director, Angela Barnes, and some of the dancers spoke to BuzzFeed News about what a Biden–Harris administration means to them, their concerns about what’s next, and why politicians should listen to Black voters.
“Get Your Booty to the Poll” was aimed at persuading Black men who might have been skeptical of the presidential candidates from both parties to vote by focusing on the importance of local elections.
Gang, like everyone else involved in the public service announcement, said that while she was glad to see Trump defeated, she was unsure about what Biden’s win would mean for Black people and the issues like criminal justice reform addressed in the ad. “I hope that the racial climate in the country gets better,” Gang said. “I don’t know if it can or will, but since the person that won has good character, hopefully he’ll influence that.”
Biden was supported by 88% of Black voters in Georgia. Stacey Abrams has been widely credited with turning the political tide in the state through her work to register voters and engage people of color and young people in electoral politics, but there were numerous other organizing efforts, including some people who have traditionally not been involved in politics, like the cast and crew behind “Get Your Booty to the Poll,” from.
Nikki St. John was one of those people. She had mostly avoided politics in the past, and still doesn’t really consider herself “involved,” but she said that something inside her snapped this summer as Black Lives Matter protests erupted around the country after the police killing of George Floyd.
“It’s like one of those moments that you see when you look back on history,” she said. “You see the civil rights marches … and they’re like, ‘What side of history would you have been on? Would you have been out there with the people trying to make change, or would you have been sitting at home doing nothing?’ And I was like, I can’t be that person who sits at home and does nothing.”
St. John lives in Atlanta and is dance partners with Gang at the Ivory, a strip club in the city. She wrote a novel about being a pole dancer a few years ago, and she has a big following on Instagram, so she started doing live town halls on it to talk about the issues over the summer. Then she got involved in the ad because it felt like an opportunity to keep talking about the need for change. “I was really excited that we weren’t just bodies,” she said. “We had something to say, and [they were] legitimate concerns and legitimate reasons why people should get out and vote.”
After the video went viral, St. John and others said they’ve been treated as de facto election experts, fielding questions from friends and fans of the video and even getting an invite to speak about voting and cash bail at a car show in Atlanta organized by the local chapter of the Movement for Black Lives.
“We thought we were just gonna be a group of dancers who came together for a good cause, in and out, but we had no idea that it was going to grow as much as it did and get as much attention,” said Zippora Lewis, another dancer who competes in and teaches pole dancing.
Lewis voted for Obama twice, but didn’t vote in 2016, and she said getting more involved this time around was eye-opening. “Politics is what it is,” she said. “But I realized that the more you speak, the more you get involved, the more you can make change happen. I think we have kind of exemplified that.”
Gang said she felt similarly. “I pretty much was a dummy — but because of everything that’s going on around me, I’m kind of having to educate myself with it and get more familiar,” she said.
Gang gathered with her family before the election to talk about how everyone was going to vote. “I wanted to make sure I wasn’t voting in any racist people who openly didn’t like Black people. … Me and my family kinda went through that before we voted,” she said.
Barnes and the group created a second PSA for the Abrams-founded New Georgia Project about how to fill out a ballot. It was also a sort of clapback to critics of the first ad who balked at the notion that sex workers would be good spokespeople to persuade Black men.
It starts in black and white, styled to look like a ’50s instructional video, with the women in long skirts and pearls. But at the end of the video, Malone says, “Wait! I know we had some haters last time, but this? How we gonna tell them to get their booty to the poll with no booty and no poll?” Then the video reverts to color and shows the women pole dancing again.
Barnes said criticism of the first video had been illuminating. While the ad was never meant to appeal to all Black men, and she might have made that clearer if she was going to do it again, she said the backlash also showed how eager some people are to silence voices they don’t like in politics.
“The bonus of having people talk about respectability and sex work and who gets a voice in this country … it’s so relevant. I mean look at freaking [Rudy] Giuliani saying, ‘If you don’t count Wayne County, we would have won Michigan,’” she said, referring to the Trump campaign’s attempt to throw out votes in the county that includes Detroit, a city where nearly 80% of residents are Black.
“That’s how easy people are ready to discount people they think they can. And the fact that people were ready to discount these women and their opinions just because they happen to exotic dancers is ridiculous. … You don’t get to value people’s opinions over another person just because of what they do for a living,” said Barnes.
She is hoping to produce a new ad for the Senate race but wasn’t sure if she’d be able to get the funding she needed. It’s harder now, she said, since people are back to work and can’t afford to donate labor; so for now, she’s repurposing some of the black-and-white ad for a Senate spot.
The original PSA was nonpartisan and aimed at simply increasing participation in the election, which Barnes said she wanted to do to show the power of Black voters.
“I’ve been a Democrat since I was 18. As much as I wanted to make it something that was ‘Go blue! Go blue!’ I was like, they’ve gotta bring something. They’ve gotta earn our vote, you know? They gotta start doing stuff instead of just assuming we’re going to vote for them,” she said. “So let’s show them how much power we have, and then we can threaten to take that power away.”
Barnes said this one will take a similar approach. “Look at the Senate. The Senate approves federal judges — lifetime appointments. … Do you want judges that are fair and treat people equally? Then you need to pick senators that think that’s important.”
While the group remains passionate about the importance of voting, they’re skeptical about whether the incoming administration and Democrats will actually do anything meaningful for Black voters.
“To be honest,” Barnes said, “I am one of those cautiously optimistic people. So I’m not really gonna be celebrating celebrating until Jan. 21 of, like, 2022. I want us to be in it, and then I want a year to go by and see what happens — because, let’s be real, I want to see what happens when Biden gets in there and all the people who showed up to support him — what is he going to do to support them back?”
Gang said that Vice President–elect Kamala Harris also has to prove herself. She said she was proud to have a Black woman in the White House but was worried about her record as a prosecutor and felt that Harris, who is biracial, was not authentic, leveraging her Blackness as a political tool when it was useful and choosing not to identify with those roots at other times.
“[She has a] history of locking up Black people for kind of next to nothing,” Gang said. “And I don’t like anyone that is like a chameleon, you know what I mean? You shouldn’t just want to be Black now that we need a Black person. You should be Black every day if that’s what you are.”
Gang said she was waiting to see how Harris acted as vice president.
“Again, I’m proud. I’m happy. She’s the first Black woman to do what she’s doing. But it’s like, please don’t screw this up,” she said. “We stuck our necks out for her … so now give us something.”
As analysts have dug into the numbers, though, the narrative about Black voters that emerged in the immediate aftermath of the election looks more complicated than it initially seemed. That has fueled a debate among Democrats about the path forward.
While Black voter turnout was higher in Georgia this year than it was in 2016, county-level data shows that other groups turned out in even higher numbers. Some analysts say Biden’s win should actually be attributed to white suburban voters who are traditionally more conservative.
Malone said she is angry about the injustices that Black people face in the US and the lack of accountability, but she keeps telling people to vote anyway because she doesn’t want to close off the possibility of change.
“I don’t want to be like, aw, no, it ain’t never gonna change, this and that. If you set out with that mindset, that’s how you act,” she said. “I believe in believing the best when there’s something to be accomplished. … We have a long way to go. We do. There’s a lot of work to be done, but we’re at a point where things are open and on the table.”
St. John, though, said it would be a mistake to take Black voters for granted.
“Our concerns need to be addressed,” she said. “We’re not just going to take lip service.
“[Black voters] didn’t want Trump. The support may not be there again in four years if we don’t see our demands being met and real change happening.”