POLITICS

Georgia Poll Closures Limit Black, Latino Voting In Senate Runoffs, Advocates Say

Early voting turnout is surging across most of the state — but not in Hall County, where officials halved the number of polling locations.

A coalition of voting rights groups on Wednesday denounced election officials in Hall County, Georgia, for opening fewer early voting sites, which the groups say is limiting turnout of Black and Latino voters during crucial January runoff elections that will determine control of the U.S. Senate.

Officials in the county, which is located about an hour northeast of Atlanta, opened four polling locations when early voting in the runoffs began Dec. 14. That’s down from eight early voting locations for the November elections.

The two Jan. 5 contests pit Republican Sens. David Perdue and Kelly Loeffler against Democrats Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock, respectively. 

During a Wednesday conference call hosted by several prominent national and Georgia-based Latino groups, activists said that the closures are concentrated in the county’s Latino and Black communities.

“This is what voter suppression looks like,” said Tania Unzueta of the MiJente Support Committee, a national Latino voting rights advocacy group. “This is one example of what we don’t want to happen, particularly in an important runoff.” 

More than 1.4 million voters cast ballots during the first week of early voting for Georgia's Senate runoff elections. But in
More than 1.4 million voters cast ballots during the first week of early voting for Georgia's Senate runoff elections. But in Hall County, where the number of early voting places has been cut in half, turnout is lagging, voting rights advocates say.

Georgia has seen massive turnout since early voting began, with more than 1.4 million ballots cast over the first week that polls were open. But similar surges haven’t taken place in Hall County, where turnout was just 13% as of Tuesday, far lower than statewide figures, those from other major counties, or Hall County’s own early turnout levels for last month’s election, said Michael Pernick, the Georgia state lead for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s voting rights project. 

Hall County officials told the rights groups that their models showed there was no need to open additional locations, said Miranda Galindo, an attorney for LatinoJustice PRLDEF, a national civil and voting rights group.

But voting rights advocates reject those claims. 

“The reason Hall County’s turnout is lower in the runoff is because Hall County cut early voting locations,” Pernick said. “We know this because turnout is up in almost every other county in the state, but not in Hall. ... This isn’t theoretical or hypothetical.”

Similar polling place reductions have occurred in some other Georgia counties. Voting groups have spent weeks urging election officials in Cobb County, a major Atlanta suburb, to expand early voting access after it reduced its number of locations from 11 for the November elections to just five for the runoffs. The New Georgia Project, whose efforts to register and turn out young and minority voters have helped expand Georgia’s electorate and shift the state’s political landscape over the last decade, also sued four other counties earlier this month.

Cobb County, home to more than 750,000 people, is nearly 30% Black and 13% Latino. Hall County’s 240,000 residents are 8% Black and nearly 30% Latino.

Amid the pressure from voting rights groups since early voting began, Cobb County has opened two additional polling places, according to NBC News. But the county is still providing fewer early voting locations than for the general election, which officials have blamed on a lack of staffing, NBC reported. President-elect Joe Biden won the county by 14 percentage points on his way to victory in Georgia in November.

Cobb County has also relocated one polling place in an effort to ease access for minority voters and has taken steps to redirect those who show up to the closed locations.

Still, Cobb County’s turnout rate has lagged statewide figures and its general election totals, Pernick said, adding evidence for the argument that Hall County “has it backward” when it claims that it doesn’t need additional polling locations because turnout is down. 

In a letter sent to Hall County election officials last week, the American Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and other groups called on the county to follow Cobb officials and open at least two more early voting locations. 

Hall County has consistently chosen to make things more difficult. Every opportunity the county has had to expand access to voters, the county has chosen not to do that. Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of the Latino rights group GALEO

The letter said that the refusal to open one location in a heavily Latino corner of the county used for early voting in the November election meant that voters had to travel more than seven miles to the next-closest location, on a route that is not served by public transportation. The failure to open another polling location, they said, largely affects two cities within the county in which more than a third of voters are Latino. 

“This community, they’re enthusiastic to vote,” said Elton Garcia, a Hall County field organizer for Georgia Latino rights group GALEO. “But this closure of early voting sites adds another barrier.”

Hall County, however, has refused to open new polling places and has also balked at taking smaller steps like providing bilingual voting guides or interpretation services for Spanish-language voters, said Jerry Gonzalez, CEO of GALEO.

“Hall County has consistently chosen to make things more difficult,” Gonzalez said. “Every opportunity the county has had to expand access to voters, the county has chosen not to do that.” 

The Hall County Board of Elections did not immediately respond to a request for comment. But participants in Wednesday’s conference call uniformly said that their groups had volunteers ready and waiting to help staff additional sites and educate voters if new locations were opened for the final week of early voting.

President Donald Trump handily won Hall County in November, earning 71% of the vote in Georgia’s 10th-most-populous county. But the presidential race statewide was decided by less than 1 percentage point. Polls show that both Senate races are currently within the margin of error, meaning that even small changes in county margins could affect the outcome, and thus control of the Senate, in either direction. 

“We care about Latino voters, whether they’re Democratic or Republican,” Galindo said. “This is about voter suppression of an entire community of minority voters in Hall County.”