October 18, 2018 Lawrenceville - Volunteer Alfred Leblanc (center) directs early voters at The Gwinnett County Voter Registrations and Elections Office in Lawrenceville on Thursday, October 18, 2018. More than 12,000 ballots had been received by the Gwinnett County Board of Voter Registration and Elections before the third day of in-person early voting had ended, county spokesman Joe Sorenson said. The county received 12,827 ballots by the end of the day Wednesday, about 45 percent of the 28,860 that have been issued for absentee by mail, advance in person, military and overseas voting. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Precincts have closed across Georgia and nation since court ruling

Poll closures accelerated in Georgia and across the South after the U.S. Supreme Court removed federal oversight of voting changes, leaving some counties in the state with just one polling place for thousands of voters, according to a report released Tuesday.

The report by The Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights organization, reveals that 1,688 polling places have been shut down since 2012 in states with histories of racial discrimination in elections, including 214 precinct closures in Georgia.

Most of those closures occurred after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 lifted requirements under the Voting Rights Act for some local governments to obtain federal permission before making changes to voting practices, such as closing precincts, according to the report, “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote.”

“In Georgia, we’re seeing a lot of rural counties close their polling places, leaving voters with only one polling place, which can create many hurdles if you have to drive many miles to vote,” said Leigh Chapman, a co-author of the report and the voting rights program director for The Leadership Conference Education Fund.

The Georgia section of the report relies on an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution published last year that accounted for precinct closures across the state. The AJC found that the 214 precinct closures in Georgia since 2012 often occurred in counties with high poverty rates and significant African American populations.

The only states to close more precincts than Georgia were Texas with 760 and Arizona with 320, according to the report.

The elections board in Randolph County is considering closing three of the county’s nine precincts, including the 4th District precinct that serves as volunteer fire station 7 as pictured on Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019. Mark Niesse / mark.niesse@ajc.com
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Fifteen of Georgia’s 159 counties are left with one precinct where all Election Day voters must cast their ballots.

County election officials said precinct closures saved taxpayers’ money that was being spent on low-turnout locations staffed by at least three poll workers. They said so many voters take advantage of early and absentee voting — 55% in last November’s election — that there’s no longer a need to have so many in-person polling places on Election Day.

In Warren County west of Augusta, five of six precincts have been closed since 2012. The county’s 3,680 registered voters have one precinct left, located at the county’s elections office in Warrenton.

“In our little county, we could struggle. If I could save the county money, that’s what I wanted to do,” said Warren County Elections Superintendent Janice Thigpen. “A lot of these precincts were created because we had farmers in the field and people who didn’t have transportation into town. That’s not the case anymore.”

The Voting Rights Act of 1965 covers the entire United States, but some local jurisdictions with patterns of discrimination were required to seek clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice before closing precincts or making other changes to voting procedures. The law covered nine states, including Georgia, as well as some counties in several other states.

In its 2013 decision in the Shelby v. Holder case, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the government’s method of determining which states needed federal approval was outdated and unconstitutional. That effectively removed federal regulation of polling place changes.

“The reason so many polling place closures have happened is because election officials no longer have to get them precleared,” said Sean Young, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia. “Our elections officials are supposed to defend and protect our democracy. Instead, many have been aggressively pushing poll closures in communities of color with phony pretexts.”

Precinct closures are county-level decisions made by local elections boards, but The Leadership Conference Education Fund report faults Brian Kemp, who was secretary of state at the time, for allegedly encouraging polling place reductions. Kemp is now Georgia’s governor.

Kemp’s office distributed a memo to county election officials in 2015 that outlined justifications for closing precincts, such as cutting operating costs and responding to fewer numbers of voters. The document notes twice that counties are no longer required to submit precinct changes to the federal government because of the Supreme Court decision.

Kemp said last year he didn’t encourage counties to reduce precincts. His spokeswoman said the document gave guidance for county election offices to follow the law when considering polling place changes.

This year, polling place closures have continued in some areas while community opposition has stopped them in others.

In Randolph County, where election officials voted down a plan to close seven precincts last year, they approved shuttering three rural precincts in overwhelmingly white areas last month.

Days later, the elections board in Jeff Davis County voted to reopen a polling place in Hazlehurst, a predominantly African American area, after voters and voting rights organizations urged their local officials to restore access to the voting location that had been closed two years earlier.

The Leadership Conference Education Fund report examined nearly 90% of counties previously covered by the preclearance provisions of the Voting Rights Act. Counties without reliable data were excluded.

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