In the five years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down key parts of the Voting Rights Act, nearly a thousand polling places have been shuttered across the country, many of them in southern black communities.
The trend continues: This year alone, 10 counties with large black populations in Georgia closed polling spots after a white elections consultant recommended they do so to save money. When the consultant suggested a similar move in Randolph County, pushback was enough to keep its nine polling places open.
But the closures come amid a tightening of voter ID laws in many states that critics view as an effort to make it harder for blacks and other minorities to vote — and, in Georgia specifically, the high-profile gubernatorial bid by a black woman.
The ballot in November features Stacey Abrams, a Democrat trying to become the first black woman elected governor in the United States, versus Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state who has led efforts in Georgia to purge voter rolls, slash early voting and close polling places.
Local officials across the country shuttered 868 polling places in the three years after the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling, according to a 2016 report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, the research arm of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 civil rights groups.
Arizona, Louisiana and Texas, the report said, “have all made alarming reductions in polling places.”
“We are now seeing the fallout of that ruling,” said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.
Polling places have often been used as political tools to shape the outcome of elections. Officials can reduce the voter participation of certain groups by eliminating polling places, and increase participation in other groups by placing precincts in key neighborhoods.
But it’s not just the number of polling places that affect voter outcomes. Moving voters to different voting environments also may affect how they vote.
Taking Away Polling Places
The number of polling places in a county can have a significant impact on who votes. And changing the location of a polling place, according to a 2011 study in the American Political Science Review, can lower voter turnout.
Fewer polling places also can lead to longer lines, which may dissuade people from voting, the Bipartisan Policy Center, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, found. Knowing this, officials can change the outcome of an election by manipulating polling places.
“You can basically lessen the turnout of people who disagree with your position,” said Abraham Rutchick, a psychology professor at California State University Northridge, who has studied the impact of polling placement.
Officials in Florida might have used the tactic recently to target college students. A federal judge ruled in July that election officials, at the direction of Republican Florida Gov. Rick Scott, “reveal[ed] a stark pattern of discrimination” by blocking early voting at the state’s college and university campuses.
Many young people have registered to vote in the aftermath of the school mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, where student survivors have led registration drives throughout the state. Patricia Brigham, president of the League of Women Voters of Florida, said state officials were trying to block these first-time voters from getting access to the ballot.
“It’s jaw-dropping that they wouldn’t be doing everything they can do to get those students to vote,” Brigham said. “It sends a very unfortunate message to our students that they aren’t doing so.”
The League of Women Voters joined students and the Andrew Goodman Foundation, a New Jersey-based advocacy group, in the successful lawsuit.
In the days after the ruling, county officials who run elections at Florida State University, the University of Central Florida, the University of Florida and the University of South Florida all said they would set up early voting for upcoming elections.
But Miami-Dade County, home to Florida International University, and Duval County, home to University of North Florida and Florida State College, won’t allow early voting this year, which could impact voter turnout among those college students.
Counties across the country continue to eliminate polling places. Just last month, Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson, a Republican, removed 170, mostly Democratic voting precincts from Lake County — home to the state’s largest Latino and second-largest black communities.
Lawson’s office said her plan updates the map to reflect new demographic data and still puts polling places close to public transportation. Local Democrats said it keeps African Americans and Hispanic voters from the polls.
Polling place environments also can have a large impact on how people vote.
There are other efforts underway in counties in Illinois, Kansas, Mississippi, Ohio and Wisconsin to move thousands of voters to new locations. The primary driver for closing some of these polling places is a tight local budget.
Some voters in Barton County, Kansas, now will have to drive 18 miles to vote in November’s election because of polling place consolidation. In the past three decades, the county has gone from 40 polling places to 11. The main reason, said County Clerk Donna Zimmerman, is cost.
“It’s expensive,” Zimmerman said. “It’s always hard when you’re taking the ballot further from the vote. It’s a hard decision, and one I take to heart.”
Voters in the rural county will be able to vote by mail, however.
In Kankakee County, Illinois, officials reduced the number of polling places from 69 to 65 this year. County Clerk Dan Hendrickson said each closed polling place saves the county a thousand dollars.
Hendrickson said he decided against closing a polling place in a predominantly black area in the city of Kankakee because of concerns from the community about transportation costs.
“We could move that polling place somewhere else,” he said, “but not a one of them could vote then.”
In Georgia, civil rights groups remain vigilant, observing each of the state’s 159 counties to make sure polling locations aren’t shuttered.
This has become commonplace in the state. Nearly a dozen counties closed many of their polling places in 2016.
Last year, Fulton County officials tried to close several polling places in predominantly black neighborhoods of South Atlanta, claiming they weren’t used enough to remain open. The American Civil Liberties Union sued, saying the county didn’t give enough public notice before closing them. A month later, and after public pressure, the county decided to keep those precincts open.
Polling Places as Political Tools
When local officials attempt to close polling places in majority-black neighborhoods, as they tried in Randolph County, Georgia, they force black voters to travel farther to vote, Rutchick said, and to vote in an environment they may find threatening, like in a majority-white neighborhood.
Indeed, Andrea Young, the executive director of the Georgia chapter of the ACLU, said poll closings often target so-called super voters, who consistently vote and depend on routine and comfort in the voting process.
“It suppresses the African-American vote,” she said.
Pushing back against that notion, Mike Malone, the white election consultant hired in Randolph County, said in community meetings that the suggested closings were not racially motivated.
“Is this the right time?” he asked at the August meeting, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “The answer is no. It’s not. The reason it’s not the right time? It’s never the right time.”
Malone has since been fired by the county. The other 10 counties that closed polling places at Malone’s recommendation, however, will keep the locations shuttered ahead of the November election.
At the time, Fulton County officials said the polling places they decided to close had declining popularity, and closing them would streamline the voting process.
Richard Barron, the county’s director of elections and registration, told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution in July 2017 that voters were relying more on early voting and wouldn’t be as hurt by the move. In making the decision, he said, the county looked at several factors, including race, voters at the precincts and distances to make a fair decision.
“We don’t like to move polling places,” Barron told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We like to have consistency so voters know where they go all the time.”
Polling place environments also can have a large impact on how people vote. Sometimes the influence can be overt, such as when a location is a church or a school.
In mid-August, city officials in Medford, Massachusetts, moved a polling place from a Veterans of Foreign Wars building because of a large “All Lives Matter” sign on display at the location, which some residents claimed was racist. And during the Pennsylvania primaries in May, voters in Philadelphia accused poll workers of intimidation for putting Bibles on polling place tables.
In June, the Supreme Court struck down a Minnesota law preventing political apparel at polling places, opening the door for more explicit political influencing there. Most states, however, have a 100-foot buffer zone around polling places to prevent electioneering, including stumping for candidates and issues and putting up campaign signs and posters.
But often, the influence is subtle.
Changing a polling location to an unfamiliar environment, said Marc Meredith, an associate professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, can be an effective tool of voter manipulation.
“While people’s partisanship is their biggest motivator,” he said, “the environment where you vote can influence how you vote.”
In 2006, Meredith and his study’s co-authors found that people who voted at schools were more likely to support an education funding initiative. In 2010, Rutchick in a separate study found that people who voted in churches were more likely to vote conservatively on issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage, finding the presence of Christian imagery “activates Christian values and attitudes and can thereby influence voting.”
Both studies show that voting environments can unconsciously trigger specific voter behavior. And while the effect is minimal, Rutchick said, “we’ve had enough close elections this year that those little things do matter.”
One way to shield certain groups from being targeted by discriminatory policies, such as closing polling locations, is to harness a vote-by-mail system, as is done in Colorado, Oregon and Washington, said Nina Kohn, a law professor at Syracuse University. It insulates voters from location biases so they can more accurately cast their ballot.
But that sort of system, said Young of the ACLU, favors voters who are highly literate.
“If you mess up your ballot,” she said, “it’s not counted.”
Instead of dramatically changing voting systems, Kohn said, voters could instead focus on local boards of election, where decisions on voter procedure and polling places are often made.
“As we look to the midterms, we need to pay very close attention to where polling locations are located,” she said. “This is not just an issue of fairness, but it could affect tight races. It could be the difference between someone winning or someone losing.”