August 24, 2018 Cuthbert - Voting rights advocates including Helen Butler with Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda speak outside Randolph County Government Center after Randolph County Board of Elections defeated a contentious proposal to close seven rural voting locations on Friday, August 24, 2018. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Precinct closures in Georgia moving forward after previous defeat

Election officials are again planning to close precincts in rural Randolph County in Georgia, months after a controversial proposal to shut down even more voting locations in the majority African American county was defeated.

The Randolph Board of Elections voted 3-0 on Tuesday to eliminate three majority-white precincts that lack adequate heating and cooling, as well as parking and bathrooms that can be used by disabled individuals. Last year, the board rejected a plan to close seven of the county’s nine precincts.

The renewed effort to consolidate polling places follows heated debates over voting rights during last year’s race for Georgia governor between Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Opponents of poll closures said voters need adequate opportunities to cast a ballot; supporters said they lack enough taxpayer money to repair dilapidated precincts.

While this attempt to close precincts isn’t as severe as last year’s, it will still make voting harder for people who don’t live near their polling places, said Helen Butler, the executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a civil rights group.

“For people living in those areas, it’s putting an extra burden on them to vote,” Butler said. “I don’t care who you are, your vote matters. Our concern is the ability to readily have access to the ballot.”

The decision to close the three precincts was needed to save costs in a county with a declining population and shrinking tax revenue, said Tommy Coleman, the county’s attorney. Randolph County, which has less than 7,000 residents, ended last year with a $2 million shortfall. The budget for all county expenses was $6 million. The county spent $85,000 on elections last year.

After the acrimony surrounding last year’s precinct closure proposal, Coleman said he believes there’s more consensus this time.

“It certainly was a compromise,” Coleman said. “We wanted to affect as few voters as possible. We’re trying to make sure everybody has a right to vote, we’re making sure everyone has a ride to the polls, and we’re cutting some expenses as well.”

It’s unclear how much money the county will save by closing the three precincts, which had a combined total of 515 registered voters.

The Randolph County Board of Commissioners declined to fund a proposed cost assessment for repairing substandard precincts, housed in prefabricated metal buildings that serve as volunteer fire stations, Coleman said. That assessment would have cost about $13,500; it would have cost much more to repave parking lots, install ramps for use by the disabled and make other improvements.

The Elections Board is in discussions to provide free transportation on Election Day for voters assigned to the three affected precincts so they can get to their new polling places, he said.

Last year’s proposed precinct closures attracted national attention because they could have reduced turnout in a county with a 62% African American majority, leading to concerns that minority voting rights were being reduced.

This year’s precinct closures would have less of an impact on African American voters. In the three precincts that would be shuttered, just over 10% of registered voters are African Americans, according to the county.

The decision to close the precincts won’t be finalized until after a public comment period that ends Aug. 19. If approved by the Elections Board, the three precincts would be closed for every election held after that date.

Hundreds of precincts have shut their doors nationwide 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.

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