voting rights

Georgia County Trying to Close Most of Its Polling Places

Vindicating the right to vote in states like Georgia has been a struggle since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013. Photo: Jessica McGowan/Getty Images

Randolph County, Georgia, is the 144th largest of the state’s rather excessive 159 counties, with a population of just over 7,000 souls. It was named after the famous early 19th-century ultrareactionary Virginia politician John Randolph of Roanoke. And it’s now living up to that ideological heritage by seeming to make itself a symbol of the cause of voter suppression.

This small county set off a large national brouhaha by proposing to close seven of nine polling places before the November general election. Because Randolph is a majority-black county, this is precisely the kind of action that would have instantly triggered U.S. Justice Department scrutiny under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 — until that “preclearance” provision was gutted by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013. Now it took local voter agitation, an intervention by the ACLU, and some reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution to place a spotlight on the highly suspicious contraction of polling places.

The plan to close the polling places came from a consultant recommended by the office of Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is the Republican gubernatorial nominee and a bit of a renowned vote suppressor. He explained the plan in a couple of heavily attended public meetings, as the Journal-Constitution reported:

The consultant, Mike Malone, presented a slide to county residents at two “courtesy” meetings last week addressing the changes that included these lines he read aloud about the plan to reduce polling sites: 

 Consolidation has come highly recommended by the Secretary of State and is already being adopted by several counties and is being seriously considered and being worked on by many more.

“The trend in Georgia and other states is to reduce polling places to reduce election costs and this is being accomplished by consolidating polling places into more combined vote centers.” 

Actually, the “vote centers” trend is mostly in states with procedures that make it very easy to vote from home, and maintain the centers for the convenience of those relatively few voters who prefer to drop off their ballots instead of popping them in the mail. Such states typically send voters mail ballots automatically or allow them to register for such automatic ballots. Georgia is not among them. But Malone seems to think voters disenfranchised by the elimination of polling places ought to take care of the problem themselves by figuring out to take advantage of “absentee and early voting alternatives.”

But the main rationale the county offered for their move is that the polling places in question were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. They were, however, considered suitable enough for use in the recent GOP gubernatorial runoff won by Brian Kemp.

After bad publicity arose over the Randolph County action, Kemp’s office joined most of the world in urging a reversal of the poll closures:

Republican Brian Kemp, who as secretary of state oversees elections, said through a spokeswoman his office advised the county to ditch the proposal. His Democratic opponent, Stacey Abrams, said closing the sites would infringe on the rights of voters to “have their voice represented at the voting booth and in our government.”

Abrams is as famous as an advocate for minority voting rights as her opponent is famous for championing voter ID and voting-roll purges. So you can see how the brouhaha might embarrass Kemp considerably.

The county commission could soon overturn the election board’s action, and beyond that, a state law allows voters themselves to stop it if enough of them sign a petition. But it’s just one small battle in a larger fight in which the right to vote is being treated by conservative governments as a privilege that can be revoked for all sorts of dubious reasons.

Georgia County Trying to Close Most of Its Polling Places