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Voters in Forsyth County, Ga., discuss weighing their choices in midterm elections

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Primary voting is underway in many states, so we're meeting voters in a pivotal state, Georgia. We're meeting them face to face in their neighborhoods because meeting people and seeing where they live gives different information than a poll. We're sampling political discussion in two big suburban Atlanta counties that could decide big elections. We heard a blue county yesterday and a red county today.

What is this place called again?

NINA KRAVINSKY, BYLINE: Riverstone Plantation.

INSKEEP: That's our producer, Nina Kravinsky. We drove into a Forsyth County neighborhood that looks new.

Hardly any big trees, green lawns.

The streets curve into a valley about 50 miles outside Atlanta's downtown. That's how far this metropolis spreads.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR BELL RINGING)

INSKEEP: We met three dozen people in our two counties, finding some by going door to door.

Hi there. Sorry to bother you. We're journalists with NPR - National Public Radio.

We asked, would people tell us their concerns about their community and the country?

ESTHER HARDING: Whew, I guess.

INSKEEP: Esther Harding (ph) was generous with her time. She's a piano teacher and let us in to hear her play.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: The music she played suits the drama of this year's elections. The president isn't on the ballot, but Georgians vote for a senator who could decide control of the whole U.S. Senate. They also decide who could be writing state abortion laws after a Supreme Court ruling on Roe v. Wade. That's why we visited these two counties, both of which are changing. Esther Harding moved here to Forsyth from Gwinnett, the blue county we heard from yesterday.

And why did you move here?

HARDING: Because Forsyth is a great county to live in. It's not as democratic ruled as Gwinnett.

INSKEEP: Why is that important to you?

HARDING: That's super important to us because, you know, we have values. And in Gwinnett, you don't get those.

INSKEEP: Which values are we talking about?

HARDING: Illegal immigration, abortion, what the kids being taught in school.

INSKEEP: Harding is an immigrant, one of many in this metro area and one of several we met who object to illegal immigration.

HARDING: It's the worst thing. We paid thousands of dollars for me to become a legal citizen. And why do they have the right to come in here and get it all for free, why?

INSKEEP: Where were you from originally?

HARDING: Germany.

INSKEEP: She lived in Gwinnett County until around the time it flipped to the Democrats and came to this county a year and a half ago.

How do you feel about the direction of Georgia right now?

HARDING: Just praying that Stacey Abrams won't take over.

INSKEEP: She's the Democratic candidate for governor. Republican Governor Brian Kemp is in a primary fight right now.

What do you think of Governor Kemp?

HARDING: I mean, he might be our only option when it comes down to it, right?

INSKEEP: Doesn't sound like you like him very much either.

HARDING: Well, not since the last election.

INSKEEP: She dislikes Governor Kemp's affirmation that Joe Biden won Georgia in 2020.

So when Trump says the election is stolen - was stolen, you believe that?

HARDING: It's not Trump's words, it's - it was stolen.

INSKEEP: In our interviews, some voters from both parties told us they respected Kemp for stating the facts about the election. But Esther Harding believes otherwise.

(CROSSTALK)

INSKEEP: Harding is one of many people moving to these new neighborhoods in northern Forsyth County. So many have come that the legislature just added a new state house district here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: Harding's next-door neighbor has also come in the last few years and also moved for political reasons. Natalia Kosogon (ph) is originally from Ukraine, as you can tell by the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag on her house and by her blue shirt with yellow fingernails. She came to the United States nine years ago.

NATALIA KOSOGON: It was our choice to move. We had some concerns about our future for our kids.

INSKEEP: Yeah.

She first settled in Los Angeles, but...

KOSOGON: Los Angeles became so democratic. So we wanted something more...

INSKEEP: More conservative?

KOSOGON: Yeah. So...

INSKEEP: So you feel politically more comfortable here than in Los Angeles?

KOSOGON: Yes.

INSKEEP: What are the issues that bothered you in Los Angeles or that you feel better about?

KOSOGON: I wasn't happy with the freedom in sexuality area.

INSKEEP: Gay rights, that sort of thing?

KOSOGON: I mean, yeah. Those people are - it's fine. I don't want to judge them.

INSKEEP: Studies show Americans are geographically segregated by party. Although, it's not clear how many move specifically for politics. People move to this big Republican-leaning county for many reasons.

One of the attractions of living in Forsyth County is the water. We're just rolling over a bridge on Two Mile Creek. And it is absolutely lined with boats, house after house after house with a dock in the back.

That's an arm of Lake Lanier, a giant reservoir. A little past this bridge is Vicky Lou's Burgers, where Vicky Lou Kerner (ph) has posted signs on her counter, some of which she read for us.

VICKY LOU KERNER: OK. I told myself I should stop drinking, but I'm not about to listen to a drunk that talks to himself. If something here offends you, please, let us know. We can all use a good laugh.

INSKEEP: Another of her signs said, warning, does not play well with liberals. We stepped outside to talk.

What concerns, if any, do you have about this community?

KERNER: I don't really know. Like, right now, it'd be just the traffic.

INSKEEP: Just like many voters we met in the blue county, she thinks life in her red county is pretty good. But she worries about the country. She associates Democrats with taxes and crime. She's a business owner, views Donald Trump as a business owner and would vote for him again.

How many Trump rallies have you been to?

KERNER: We went to the Trump parade here on the lake. And then we went to a Trump rally in...

INSKEEP: Oh, they did a boat parade over here?

KERNER: Yeah, in the lake.

INSKEEP: OK.

KERNER: And then, the other one, I think, was South Georgia, it might've been.

INSKEEP: Forsyth County went big for Trump twice. The first time he got 70% of the vote here and a lot of his victory margin in Georgia. But look back over many years and you see the Republican share of the vote drifting downward as new residents arrive.

Whoa. Hi, puppy.

One of the new arrivals in recent years was Laura McConn (ph), who invited us to meet her with her chocolate Labrador on her backyard deck.

Oh, my God.

LAURA MCCONN: I might be, like, overly - I was overly ambitious and excited about this. So I was like, I'm making muffins. And, anyway, you may not even have time to eat them, which is totally fine.

INSKEEP: Oh, no. I'm going to have time.

She moved here from Ohio several years ago when her husband changed jobs. Atlanta's economy is growing. She loved the house, which backs up to some woods. But she did not love local politics.

MCCONN: It was shocking even, I know, going for my first election and picking up my ballot and realizing there wasn't a single Democrat on the ballot.

INSKEEP: They're not even running for a lot of local offices?

MCCONN: There wasn't a choice.

INSKEEP: So she helped to start a group called Connect the Dots.

MCCONN: The way we came up with the name was connecting blue dots in a sea of red.

INSKEEP: It's a way for like-minded people to talk or even organize demonstrations, as they did recently in favor of abortion rights. The county Democratic chair, Melissa Clink, came by as we ate muffins on the deck. And she told us she wants local Democrats just to be out, to get on the ballot in local races or wear a Joe Biden T-shirt when they go to the grocery store.

MELISSA CLINK: It really is the power of just seeing someone else kind of living in their truth and saying that I'm a Democrat and this is what I believe. It's OK if you don't agree with me. You can vote against me. But I'm still going to vote this way.

INSKEEP: She has more Democrats to work with as more people arrive, like Kannan Udayarajan. He moved here 15 years ago from India to work in the tech industry.

KANNAN UDAYARAJAN: You know, my grandfather took part in the Indian freedom struggle in a small way. My father was politically active. I was a student leader back during my student days in India. And I've been privileged to live in the largest democracy, as well as the oldest democracy. And to me, it is all about democracy and social justice.

INSKEEP: He believes in universal health care and in diversity and is now the local Democratic vice chair. Republicans know they have to work to keep this changing county red, as we learned when we visited the county Republican chairman.

JERRY MARINICH: Welcome. Welcome.

INSKEEP: Hey. Good morning. Thank you.

MARINICH: I'm Jerry.

INSKEEP: Jerry, nice to meet you. I'm Steve.

Like so many local voters, Jerry Marinich is, himself, a relative newcomer.

MARINICH: I'm a New Yorker. But I brought my Republican values from New York down to Georgia.

INSKEEP: Forsyth County's hilly landscape reminds him of Binghamton, N.Y., Where he's from. He hopes to persuade other newcomers to vote as he does.

MARINICH: People are moving here. And why are they moving here? We have a great sheriff. We have a great school system. We have a great park system. Our taxes are low. And I just want to remind all the people that that was all brought forth by Republican leadership.

INSKEEP: We were meeting at the county Republican headquarters, where you can pick up yard signs. They have Let's Go Brandon signs, referring to a somewhat different slogan insulting Joe Biden. They also have signs for a candidate for state court judge who is originally from Mumbai. Besides recruiting newcomers, the chairman needs to persuade existing Republican voters to turn out. Many believe the big lie that the last election was stolen.

Do you run into Republican voters who basically are saying, you know, my vote isn't going to count?

MARINICH: Well, there are people that are very frustrated. Correct. They're very frustrated - and why should they vote? We're encouraging them to vote. We're saying, OK, it's OK to look in the rearview mirror. That's why it's so small, because you're looking in the rearview mirror. You need to look through the windshield and looking forward and what your goal is and go for that, because if you don't vote, they win.

INSKEEP: After Donald Trump raised so many baseless questions, Republicans hope a state voting law passed last year will reassure members of their party. Democrats have alleged that same law tilts the playing field against them. The law included money to train poll watchers who will observe this year's voting. One of them is Bea Wilson (ph).

BEA WILSON: Now, I think the new rules will allow stricter controls. Does the public understand that? Maybe not. So there's probably still a doubt publicly about the whole thing. But I think the new rules will be - nip some of that in the bud.

INSKEEP: Oh, that's interesting. So you have confidence in this year's election?

WILSON: Better than I did in 2020, yeah.

INSKEEP: But if you talk to some of your friends and neighbors, they might not have confidence?

WILSON: Probably not.

INSKEEP: Georgia elections are a test of voters' faith. In a primary that ends next week, the Republican governor, who affirmed the 2020 election result, faces a challenger who denies it. The winner of that primary can expect to face Democrat Stacey Abrams this fall. She has raised her own questions about the fairness of Georgia election rules. This year's results may depend, in part, on who believes their vote will count.

(SOUNDBITE OF TONY FURTADO AND DIRK POWELL'S "BANE'S GRAVE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.