Voters waited over an hour at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta on Nov. 6, 2018. JOHN SPINK/JSPINK@AJC.COM

Voting precinct reopened in Hazlehurst amid closures across Georgia

A voting precinct will be reopened in the South Georgia town of Hazlehurst, a rare expansion of voting access in a predominantly African American area.

The Jeff Davis County Board of Elections voted 2-1 on Tuesday to restore the polling place, located in a building next to an office supply store.

The Hazlehurst precinct closed two years ago, but voters and voting rights organizations persuaded their local government to reverse itself, said John Powers, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which uses the legal system to oppose racial discrimination.

“It’s a model for others to follow, where elected officials work together with local voters and grassroots organizations to really hear about the issues and problems that voters are facing,” Powers said.

Since the Hazlehurst precinct closed, some of its 1,500 voters couldn’t walk to the polls anymore. If they didn’t have cars, they had to find rides to vote. Elderly voters had a harder time getting to the polls, he said.

Hazlehurst is the exception to a six-year trend of polling place closures since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2013 removed requirements under the Voting Rights Act for some governments to obtain federal clearance before making changes to voting practices, such as closing precincts.

County election officials closed 214 precincts across Georgia between 2012 and 2018, according to an analysis last year by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

On Monday, the Randolph County Board of Elections in southwest Georgia voted to close three precincts.

The decision to reopen a precinct in Hazelhurst protects the voting rights of minority voters, said Helen Butler, executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, a civil rights group.

“They have spoken out loudly against the consolidation,” Butler said. “It makes no sense to risk disenfranchising voters in the 2020 elections.”

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