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Proposal to close rural Georgia precincts soundly defeated

A contentious proposal to close most voting locations in a rural, mostly African-American county in southwest Georgia met a swift and resounding defeat Friday following overwhelming opposition to reducing voting access in an election year.

In a one-minute meeting, the Randolph County Board of Elections voted 2-0 to save seven precincts in sparsely populated areas marked by farms, trucks and churches. The decision preserves easy access for about 1,700 registered voters in November’s high-profile campaign for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.

The packed room of voters and civil rights advocates erupted in cheers after the vote killed the proposal to consolidate the county’s nine precincts into two larger locations.

Voting rights advocates including Helen Butler with the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda speak to members of the press outside the Randolph County Government Center after the county’s Board of Elections defeated a proposal to close seven rural voting locations on Friday. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

The proposal received widespread criticism because it could have reduced turnout in a majority-black county, where some voters without a car would have had to walk 10 miles to reach a remaining polling place.

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Many said they didn’t believe the justification that these voting locations weren’t accessible to people with disabilities. They suspected the real motive was to suppress votes from Democrats in a county where 55 percent of voters supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for president over Republican Donald Trump.

“Closing down the voting polls would eliminate a lot of people from voting. It would have hurt the elderly and the poor. It wouldn’t work,” Shyheim Foster, a member of the U.S. Navy, said outside a barbershop in Cuthbert after the vote. “You don’t want to throw the race card into this, but in a small town like this, they can usually get away with murder.”

A crowd gathered outside the Randolph County government building chanted “defeat hate, vote” as they celebrated the decision to keep precincts open.

“This is a victory, but by no means do we want to relax,” said Edward DuBose, a member of the NAACP’s national board of directors. “This is a small example of what’s happening across Georgia to disenfranchise African-American and minority voters.”

The two members of the nonpartisan election board, who were appointed by local governments, said in a statement that they considered precinct closures after discussions about saving taxpayers’ money as the county’s population and tax base have declined. There are about 4,200 registered voters in Randolph County.

Randolph County Board of Elections members Michele Graham and Scott Peavy vote “No” to a proposal to close seven rural voting locations during a meeting Friday at the Randolph County Government Center in Cuthbert. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM (The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

“In the United States, the right to vote is sacred,” the board said. “The interest and concern shown has been overwhelming, and it is an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle.”

The precinct consolidation proposal came from Mike Malone, an elections consultant who donated $250 to Kemp’s campaign July 2. The Secretary of State’s Office provided Malone’s name, along with two others, to the Elections Board when it needed to hire a certified elections official on short notice before the May primary election.

Kemp denied that he had anything to do with Malone’s attempt to close precincts. Kemp, as Georgia’s secretary of state, is the state’s top elections official. But decisions about precinct locations are made on the county level. Malone has said Kemp never recommended precinct consolidation. The county officials who hired Malone in April fired him Wednesday.

“I was the first elected official in Georgia to publicly oppose the plan,” Kemp said. “Today, the Board of Elections, who are empowered to make these decisions, finally did the right thing and rejected this ill-advised, poorly timed proposal from an independent consultant who is not backed by the Secretary of State’s Office.”

Abrams said she’s pleased that national and local attention helped scuttle the precinct closure plan.

“My hope is that across the state of Georgia, we will see an increase in access and no longer have conversations about how to decrease the right to vote,” Abrams said.

Several Randolph County residents said they’re suspicious of the effort because it would have discouraged poor minority voters from casting a ballot.

Randolph County has a 31 percent poverty rate and is 61 percent black, according to the U.S. Census.

Yolanda Forester, a nurse, said she’d like to see more people vote, but eliminating precincts and making them travel would discourage them.

“Locally, people do need the polls,” Forester said after ordering fried chicken for lunch in Cuthbert. “You wonder what else they might be up to.”

Bobby Jenkins, the chairman of the Randolph County Democratic Party, said eliminating voting access in sparsely populated areas would have hurt those with low incomes who are more likely to lack transportation options and vote for Democrats.

“If we were going to look at the number of people who live below the poverty level, a disproportionate number of those are black,” Jenkins said. “You have to look at who would benefit. It would help Brian Kemp.”

Mary Starling, a poll worker at the Benevolence precinct, said the disabled are able to vote in Randolph County. The Benevolence precinct, located in a fire station, has accommodations for the disabled, along with running water and toilets, she said.

“We’ve got all of that, so there’s no excuse to close it,” Starling said. “There’s a lot of voters who don’t have transportation or a means to get there, so that would cut them out of the vote” if the proposal had passed.

The American Civil Liberties Union and other groups came to Friday’s vote with stacks of papers in hand to file lawsuits if the precinct closure had moved forward. They have said the proposal would have disenfranchised minority voters in violation of federal voting rights laws.

“This is a victory for the people of Randolph County, and we are proud to have stood with them and fight for their sacred right to vote,” said Andrea Young, the executive director for the ACLU of Georgia.

But some voters said there should be a middle ground where precincts could be consolidated — just not in the middle of an election year after the primary election had already been held.

There are an average of 242 registered voters in the seven precincts that were targeted for closure, compared with an average of 2,523 voters per precinct across Georgia, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Eugene Freeman, the manager of Cuthbert Pawn, said voters should exercise their rights even when it’s not always convenient.

“If I have to give up time and money to vote, and I think it’s that important, others should, too,” he said. “The amount of hoopla around it is more than it has to be. Everyone needs to sit down and let cooler heads prevail and talk about it.”

State Sen. Freddie Powell Sims, whose district includes Randolph County, said voters deserve easy access to voting locations, even in areas without large numbers of voters.

“People have died to get the right to vote,” said Sims, D-Dawson. “These voters are the taxpayers. It’s their voting rights. It belongs to them.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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