Cost-cutting moves spur fears about reducing access to Georgia voters

A steady flow of voters entered the polling place at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church on Shallowford Rd. in Marietta. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

A steady flow of voters entered the polling place at Beautiful Savior Lutheran Church on Shallowford Rd. in Marietta. BOB ANDRES / BANDRES@AJC.COM

28 days until vote

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Memorial Gym in Macon was under renovation in February when local election officials suggested a new temporary polling place for voters in the majority-black neighborhood: the Sheriff’s Office.

Local officials said it was a sincere effort to find a safe location to host voters. Residents, who have seen several polling sites close and have raised concerns about racial profiling by police, decided they’d had enough.

“When voter suppression still exists and when we have to stand up for what we believe in and what is right, we will do it,” said Gwen Westbrooks, who helped organize a response that stopped the move.

Dozens of polling places have closed, consolidated or moved across Georgia since the last presidential election, worrying some voter advocates over how that might affect turnout heading into this year's contest.

Local officials say the closures are money-savers and more efficient, especially at a time when there is increased access to early voting. Some voter activists, however, fear it is a tactic to limit voting access, especially for the state's minorities.

Proposals to close voting precincts in counties including Macon-Bibb, Hancock and Upson have all raised the ire of activists. Other counties have considered changes but either haven’t acted on them or have passed on the idea.

“There were many factors that influenced our decision, but none of them had anything to do with race or making it more difficult for anyone to vote,” said Robert Haney, the chairman of the Upson County Board of Elections, which cut its polling sites from nine to four. Haney said reasons for the cuts included security and a struggle to find qualified poll workers.

The estimated savings, he said, would be between $15,000 and $20,000. And the use of early voting in Upson, he said, meant about half of voters normally cast ballots before Election Day, anyway. “That factored greatly into our decision,” Haney said.

“We had precincts where only a handful of people were showing up to vote on the day of the election,” he said.

In Macon-Bibb County, several of the eight polling locations closed since last year were in majority-black communities — a point exacerbated by the attempt to use the Sheriff’s Office building as a polling site. Local election officials cited concerns over violence in proposing the move, but Westbrooks — who used to live in the community near Memorial Gym and is now president of the Macon-Bibb NAACP chapter — said it sent “the wrong message” among residents who had raised concerns about local law enforcement in recent years.

The voting precinct has since been relocated twice and will now be placed permanently at a church.

Macon-Bibb County Elections Officer Tom Gillon said the closures were based on budget cuts, stemming from the merger two years ago of what had been separate city and county governments. The county has dropped from 40 to 32 polling locations.

“They asked every department to cut their budgets, and poll workers were a large part of our budget,” Gillon said. “If the county showed us more money, we would have 50 precincts.”

The local cuts have come as Georgia has been pushed to the center of a national debate this year on voting access. Advocates have sued the state this year over voter registration denials and allegations of voter roll purges, among other other issues. Groups have also sued or threatened legal action over decisions such as the proposal to move the Macon-Bibb precinct into the Sheriff's Office building.

For many local officials, however, the push to close or consolidate polling locations stems from the idea that as early voting increases voter access, it lessens the need to have as many Election Day polling sites. Using fewer sites saves money, they say, because it means paying fewer poll workers and reducing other expenses.

Fayette County has just begun discussions that could see it shrink from 36 locations to 19 — although no decision will be made until after the Nov. 8 presidential election. Local election officials estimate it would save thousands of dollars, although they don’t have a final tally yet and are still doing a cost analysis.

“We have 36 polling locations — that’s too much,” said Leigh Combs, Fayette’s elections officer, who said it had been more than 30 years since the county had considered such a wholesale change.

“When those were set up, that was long before absentee voting could be done for no reason, and we didn’t have the three weeks of early (in-person) voting and we didn’t have Saturday voting,” Combs said. “We have polling locations that are literally across the street from each other. Just in Peachtree City, we have five or six that are right together.”

Critics, however, say the effect of such change is heightened this year in states such as Georgia, which used to be subject to a federal elections mandate known as “Section 5” of the national Voting Rights Act. It required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to seek approval from the Justice Department or federal courts before making changes to voting rules.

A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, however, struck down that provision. Advocates fear it may have opened the floodgates.

Hancock County, which is part of an ongoing lawsuit over a purge of its voter rolls last year, proposed last year to consolidate several precincts, including one as far away as 17 miles from the one proposed location in downtown Sparta. The county eventually relented, closing just one location, but not until after an outcry by groups including the Georgia NAACP, the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law that said the planned closures would have disproportionately affected voters in the majority-black county who live in poor or rural areas with no access to regular transportation.

At a rally earlier this month on the steps of the Hancock County Courthouse, Sparta Mayor William Evans Jr. said residents who may have been complacent about voting got served a wake-up call.

But local officials said they keep the public in mind when making decisions about polling places.

Tift County, in south-central Georgia, recently considered closing all but one of its 12 polling locations after several years of discussions about how to become more efficient.

Casandra Fallin, the county elections supervisor, said the idea was inspired by nearby Lowndes County — which in the past decade has gone from 37 precincts to nine. One of them covers an area the size of Tift County.

“We were trying to make it more convenient for everyone to have one location to go to,” Fallin said. “But with the feedback we received from the public, from the elderly and people who walk to the polls and everything, we don’t want to do anything to hurt anyone.”

The county has now dropped the idea, Fallin said, and there are no plans to revisit it.