voting rights

Georgia County Debacle Shows Why We Need a Voting-Rights Act With Teeth

It took a lot of people and a lot of attention, but it will now be easier to vote in November in this small Georgia county. Photo: Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Literally “seconds” into a special Friday meeting on the subject, the two-member Elections Board of Randolph County, Georgia, responded to a firestorm of internal and external criticism by scrapping a plan to close seven of the small jurisdiction’s nine polling places. As Sam Levine reports, the board offered a bit of a lame-o rationalization for its prior action but acknowledged it had stepped into a rattlesnake next:

In a statement released after the meeting, the board of elections said the county’s population and tax base had declined in recent years and said there had been discussions about the number of polling places for years as a way to save money. Still, it acknowledged the controversy prompted by the proposal and said it would not approve it.

At different points in the brief but intense and nationally renowned controversy, the election board or the “consultant” working for it cited cost concerns, Americans With Disabilities Act compliance, or the availability of early and absentee ballot option as reasons for shutting down the precincts, which enraged African-American residents in the majority-black county and attracted the attention of voting-rights activists. The case developed a particularly lurid political dimension when it transpired that the consultant had been recommended by the office of Georgia secretary of State Brian Kemp, now the GOP nominee for governor, who has a reputation for being cavalier about if not actively hostile toward voting-rights concerns. The consultant also suggested that Kemp favored the kind of polling-place consolidations Randolph County was pursuing, which motivated Kemp and his office to very quickly join the whole world in urging the county to back off its plans.

In the end, we may never know what exactly was going on in Randolph County, and whether it was a matter of racially motivated malice or simple incompetence. At least one observer has offered evidence that the precincts scheduled to be closed lean more Republican than Democratic.

But the big takeaway is that this is precisely the sort of change in voting procedures that would have until recently triggered an automatic review by the Justice Department, which would conduct an investigation and then either grant or deny a “preclearance” before it could be implemented, under the provisions of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. In 2013, however, a 5-4 majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, in the Shelby County v. Holder decision, basically gutted Section 5 (by voiding Section 4, which identified the jurisdictions subject to preclearance), liberating the mostly former Confederate jurisdictions involved from having to get the Feds’ permission for voting changes potentially affecting minority voters.

So instead of a set process with national guidelines, and a pretty strong disincentive for mucking around with voting rights, you have the kind of situation the Randolph County case epitomizes: questionable decisions made by individual jurisdictions with little or no transparency, requiring an army of lawyers, activists, journalists, and local citizens to flush it all out into the light of day. It’s a hell of a way to guarantee the right to vote.

Georgia County Debacle Is Why We Need a VRA With Teeth