Election officials in a rural southwest Georgia county are defending a plan to suddenly close seven of the county’s nine polling places against allegations of racial discrimination, saying the ones it wants to close are not sufficiently accessible to people with disabilities.
Randolph County, the site of the proposed changes, is more than 60 percent black, with a little over 30 percent of residents in poverty ― more than double the national level. The Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union sent a letter to the election board earlier this week warning of a lawsuit because the proposed closures discriminated against black voters. Those voters, the group said, were less likely to own a car and would be required to walk over three hours to one of the two remaining polling locations because there is no public transportation to get them there. The ACLU also noted the voter makeup of one of the polling places officials wanted to close was 96.7 percent black.
During a public meeting to discuss the changes Thursday evening, Mike Malone, a consultant hired by the county, said the seven polling places did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Officials said they don’t have time to fix them, so they would close them instead, WALB reported.
Sean Young, the ACLU of Georgia’s legal director, attended the meeting Thursday night and dismissed the suggestion that a lack of ADA compliance meant the polling places had to close. Randolph County residents who attended were also skeptical of the excuse, according to local reports.
“If a government building is not ADA compliant, the solution is to make them ADA compliant. If you cut your hand, you don’t chop off your arm, you heal the wound,” he said. “They have had decades to fix these issues and have had elections in these polling places. The better question is why haven’t these issues been fixed? And why, instead of fixing them, are you shutting them down?”
“If a government building is not ADA compliant, the solution is to make them ADA compliant. If you cut your hand, you don’t chop off your arm, you heal the wound.”
Todd Black, the county’s director of elections and registration, did not return requests for comment. A second public meeting is scheduled for Friday night. A vote is expected Aug. 24.
In the letter to the county board, the ACLU said there was evidence of discriminatory intent in the proposal. They pointed to the fact that Stacey Abrams, the first female black nominee for governor from a major party, will be on the ballot this fall.
“This is a Black Belt county that has twice the rate of African-American population as the rest of the state. With the ugly history of voting discrimination that Georgia’s a part of, you need to think twice before you eliminate 75 percent of the polling places in a majority black county,” Young said.
“We have expected high turnout this fall. You have to ask, why were these polling places enough for the primary and runoff earlier this year, but not good enough for this November’s election?” he added. “The timing is very suspicious.”
Abrams is facing off against Brian Kemp, the Republican Secretary of State of Georgia. In a statement, Kemp said he was opposed to closing the polling locations.
“As soon as we learned about this proposal, we immediately contacted Randolph County to gather more information. Although state law gives localities broad authority in setting precinct boundaries and polling locations, we strongly urged local officials to abandon this effort and focus on preparing for a secure, accessible, and fair election for voters this November,” he said.
In a statement Friday, Abrams said she supports keeping the polling places open.
Georgia was one of nine states that had to seek approval from the federal government before making changes to its election practices under the 1965 Voting Rights Act. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court nullified that requirement, ruling the formula used to determine which states had to get approval was unconstitutional. Chief Justice John Roberts, who authored the majority opinion, pointed to progress in getting rid of racial discrimination to justify why the formula should be struck down. In a dissent, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg famously wrote that Roberts’ reasoning was akin to “throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, said the proposed changes in Randolph County showed the significance of the Supreme Court’s decision to get rid of the preclearance formula.
“Had the Supreme Court not killed the Voting Rights Act, then the county would not have been able to make these changes without demonstrating to the Justice Department or a three-judge court that the changes would not make minority voters worse off,” he wrote in an email. “The Chief Justice assured us that things have changed in the South, but apparently they haven’t changed enough.”