Civil rights group condemns possibility of Georgia precinct closures

A rural, majority African American county in Georgia that backed off a contentious plan to close most of its voting locations before last year's election is now evaluating the costs of repairing its precincts.

The revived review of voting locations raised concerns from a voting rights group Friday that officials will again try to reduce access to the polls.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, a group that takes legal action to oppose racial discrimination, sent a letter to Randolph County officials on Friday condemning their renewed evaluation of the voting locations.

But the county’s attorney said there are no plans to close precincts, and the local government needs to assess the costs of repairing dilapidated polling places so that they’re accessible to people with disabilities. He said it’s premature for the Lawyers’ Committee to say the cost assessment will lead to precinct closures.

Randolph County, with a population of about 7,000, found itself in the national spotlight last year when election officials considered a proposal to close seven of the county's nine voting locations. The county elections board voted 2-0 in August to keep all its polling places open before November's election for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

County officials should find ways to make voting more accessible instead of closing polling places, said Kristen Clarke, the president and executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee, a Washington-based nonprofit organization founded in 1963.

“Randolph County’s consideration of closing voting sites ahead of what will likely be a hotly contested 2020 presidential election cycle smacks of racially motivated voter suppression,” Clarke said in a statement. “These closures in a majority-black county have an outsized effect on low-income and minority communities, especially those without the means to travel long distances to exercise their fundamental right to vote.”

The renewed scrutiny comes after Elections Supervisor Todd Black gave a presentation to county commissioners April 17 about his plan to assess the costs of repairing dilapidated precincts.

Many of the precincts lack ramps or parking spaces for voters with disabilities, and they should be upgraded to ensure compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act, said Tommy Coleman, the county’s attorney.

“The county really felt like it needed the information about what the cost was before making any decisions at all about anything,” Coleman said.

Some voting locations are little more than volunteer fire departments housed in prefabricated steel buildings in the middle of fields, he said.

Randolph County commissioners and election board members haven’t yet voted on the proposal to evaluate costs of repairing precints, Black said. If approved, the county would hire a construction company to conduct the cost assessment.

Coleman said that in a small county with a declining budget, the local government needs to find out how much tax money it would cost to improve voting locations so officials can make informed choices.

“It’s not as easy of a question as you’d like to hear,” Coleman said. “The letter I got this morning is premature. Nobody called us. There was not an attempt to find out what the actual facts are. It would be good if lawyers could examine both sides before they jump off a cliff.”

While no precincts were closed in Randolph County last year, hundreds have shut their doors across the state since the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 removed requirements under the Voting Rights Act for some local governments to obtain federal clearance before making changes to voting practices, such as closing precincts.

County election officials have closed 214 precincts across the state since 2012, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last year.