Voting precincts closed across Georgia since election oversight lifted

August 24, 2018 Cuthbert - Voting rights advocates including Helen Butler with Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda speak to members of the press 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. The Randolph County Board of Elections voted 2-0 to save these precincts and preserve easy access to the polls for about 1,700 registered voters. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

August 24, 2018 Cuthbert - Voting rights advocates including Helen Butler with Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda speak to members of the press 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. The Randolph County Board of Elections voted 2-0 to save these precincts and preserve easy access to the polls for about 1,700 registered voters. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

When a passionate crowd rallied to save polling places in rural Randolph County, it won a high-profile battle for voting access.

But voters trying to preserve their local precincts are losing the war as voting locations are vanishing across Georgia.

County election officials have closed 214 precincts across the state since 2012, according to an analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. That figure means nearly 8 percent of the state’s polling places, from fire stations to schools, have shut their doors over the past six years.

Voting rights activists see the poll closures as an attempt to suppress turnout by African-American voters, but local election officials say they’re saving taxpayers’ money by consolidating precincts at a time when more Georgians are taking advantage of early voting.

These precincts have been eliminated without federal government oversight. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling 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. The requirement was created specifically to prevent discrimination in mostly Southern communities with a history of poll taxes and other measures aimed at preventing minorities from voting.

The state doesn’t monitor the closure of polling places either. The Georgia Secretary of State’s Office did not know how many precincts had been eliminated until told by the AJC.

The counties hit hardest by precinct closures are often in rural, impoverished areas where decisions about voting locations are made without attracting much public attention.

One-third of Georgia’s counties — 53 of 159 — have fewer precincts today than they did in 2012, according to the AJC’s count.

Of the counties that have closed voting locations, 39 have poverty rates that are higher than the state average. Thirty have significant African-American populations, making up at least 25 percent of residents.

“Look at the areas where they’re closing precincts and consolidating. It’s usually in areas with poor people and minority communities that have less resources to get to other locations,” said Helen Butler, the executive director for the Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda, a civil rights group.

Local election officials responsible for closing polling places often contend those locations are too expensive, underused or inaccessible to people with disabilities. Under the preclearance provision of the Voting Rights Act, communities would have had to show that changes aimed at saving money would not disenfranchise minorities. Now, there is no such federal protection.

State Sen. Josh McKoon, a Republican from Columbus, said there are many legitimate reasons for counties to consolidate precincts, particularly in rural areas that are struggling financially.

"We need to be careful in ascribing bad motives to people I think, in my opinion, are between a rock and a hard place," said McKoon, who lost his bid this year to be the Republican nominee for secretary of state. "I don't believe I encountered anybody who woke up in the morning and said, 'How can we make it more difficult to vote?' "

But even if they don’t intend to suppress voters, that’s the outcome, said Hannah Fried, the national director for the All Voting is Local campaign, an advocacy effort to protect and expand voting access.

“It is no coincidence that in places with a history of discrimination in voting we see this as a tactic that’s used again and again,” she said. All Voting is Local is a project of the Washington-based Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights and human rights organization.

Across the South, hundreds of polling places have closed since the Supreme Court struck down part of the Voting Rights Act five years ago.

At least 868 polling places in seven Southern states have closed since the decision, according to a Leadership Conference Education Fund study in 2016 of some areas previously covered by the Voting Rights Act. About 43 percent of counties included in the study had reduced voting locations. More recent data on precinct closures in those states hasn't been published.

Down in Randolph

A loud public outcry helped stop a consultant's proposal to close seven out of nine precincts in Randolph County, a majority African-American county in southwest Georgia near the Alabama border.

August 24, 2018 Cuthbert - Helen Butler (left) with Georgia Coalition for the People’s Agenda and Georgia State Representative Erica Thomas celebrate after Randolph County Board of Elections defeated a contentious proposal to close seven rural voting locations at Randolph County Government Center on Friday, August 24, 2018. The Randolph County Board of Elections voted 2-0 to save these precincts and preserve easy access to the polls for about 1,700 registered voters. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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After the plan attracted national attention, the county’s volunteer Board of Elections killed it on Aug. 24.

The proposal was billed as a way to ensure the disabled would have accessible facilities at the remaining precincts, and to make elections more efficient. One precinct, Fountain Bridge, had just 17 voters in the May primary election.

But those opposing the closures, such as Bobby Jenkins of the county Democratic Party, saw a more pernicious motive.

“I feel that the real reason was voter suppression. Look at the people who would benefit from the closing of those precincts and decreasing black voting turnout,” Jenkins said, referring to Republican candidates.

Republicans, including Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, joined Democrats in denouncing precinct closures when they became contentious. Kemp, who is running for governor against Democrat Stacey Abrams, has emphasized that decisions about polling places are made at the county level, not by his office.

Kemp has said he hasn't encouraged counties to reduce precincts, and he doesn't support the consultant who recommended the closures, Mike Malone. Kemp's office provided Malone's name and two others to the county when it needed to hire a certified elections official on short notice before the May primary election. County officials fired Malone before voting to reject the plan to close precincts.

A six-page document found by the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which uses lawsuits to oppose racial discrimination, shows that Kemp's office gave guidance to local election officials about how to close precincts and polling places.

The document, dated February 2015, doesn't recommend closing precincts, but it outlines the reasons local governments can do so, including to cut operating costs and to respond to shrinking numbers of voters. The document says twice that because of the Supreme Court decision on the Voting Rights Act, Shelby County v. Holder, election officials are no longer required to submit precinct changes to the U.S. Department of Justice for preclearance.

August 24, 2018 Cuthbert - Arial view of the city of Cuthbert in Randolph County on Friday, August 24, 2018. An elections board in southwestern Georgia defeated a contentious proposal Friday to close seven rural voting locations before November’s election following overwhelming opposition to the idea. The precinct closure proposal received widespread criticism because it could have reduced turnout in a majority African-American county, where some voters without a car would have had to walk 10 miles to reach one of the two remaining precincts in the county. Randolph County has a 31 percent poverty rate, according to the U.S. Census. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

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Candice Broce, a spokeswoman for Kemp, said the document clearly explains how local election officials should make decisions on precinct changes.

“The Lawyers’ Committee, which only cares about Georgia when there is an election looming, is grasping for straws,” Broce said. “This document, which was provided to all elections officials in 2015, urges local elections offices to follow the law and do what is in the best interest of voters. Any suggestion to the contrary is a baseless attack by politically motivated actors.”

Finding a pattern

John Powers, an attorney for the Lawyers’ Committee, said that while decisions to close precincts are made by independent election boards in each of Georgia’s 159 counties, the trend is clear.

Loss of voting access frequently happens in counties with low incomes, small populations and substantial minority populations, he said.

“There’s no doubt that there is a pattern statewide. Many of the counties in which consolidations are being considered have substantial numbers of minority voters,” Powers said. “These precinct consolidations have a disparate impact on Georgia’s most vulnerable citizens.”

Election officials say their reasons for closing precincts are legitimate.

Jackson County, north of Athens, had a shortage of voting equipment and poll workers before shrinking from 16 precincts to four last year, Elections Director Jennifer Logan said. Some voting locations had low turnout, while others had lines stretching around buildings.

“Now we have four large locations with the same amount of voters at each location,” Logan said. “Nobody wants to suppress voters. We go above and beyond what we’re required to do” to get as many people voting as possible.

Victories and defeats

Precinct closures in Jackson, a mostly Republican county that overwhelmingly supported Donald Trump in the 2016 election, show that election officials aren’t politically motivated, said Houston Gaines, a Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives.

“We need to recognize that this was not some plot from Republicans to suppress the vote,” said Gaines, who lost a special election to Democratic state Rep. Deborah Gonzalez last year. “That narrative being pressed by Stacey Abrams and the Democrats is not true. … This is something that’s happening all across the state, and it’s not something that’s good for voters.”

Gonzalez disagreed, saying that even in Republican counties, poll closures disproportionately affect minorities and people with low incomes because they’re less likely to have transportation options to get to a precinct on Election Day.

"The closing of polling stations is just another tool used to suppress voters," said Gonzalez, who represents the Athens area. "Anytime you make it harder for someone to vote, you're actually obstructing their rights."

In Macon, a battle over precinct closures three years ago had mixed results.

Election officials had proposed reducing the number of precincts in Macon-Bibb County from 40 to 26, but opposition to the move curtailed it. In the end, Bibb shuttered eight precincts instead of 14. One precinct would have been moved to a sheriff’s office, which voting rights activists said would intimidate black voters.

"We were concerned because the closures were in areas of predominantly African-American communities," said Gwen Westbrooks, the president of the NAACP's Macon branch. "It seems like every time there's an election, we see different efforts to either reduce the polling places or purge voters out of the system. It's always something going on to try to impose voter suppression."

Macon-Bibb County Elections Officer Thomas Gillon said precinct closures were necessary to save money for a government with few financial resources. He said reducing the number of polling places saved about $40,000 per election year. The county has a $161 million annual budget that included property tax increases this year to fund libraries, bus and recreation services.

Discouraging voters wasn’t part of the equation, he said.

“That was the last thing we would consider as a reason for doing that,” Gillon said. “If the county had more money for us, we’d open up more polling places. We’d be happy to do that, but we have a county government whose budget is very strapped right now.”

November 4, 2016 - Atlanta - Lines stretch out the door of the Southeast Atlanta Library this morning on the last day of early voting before election day on Tuesday. BOB ANDRES /BANDRES@AJC.COM

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In Fulton County, which covers most of the city of Atlanta, elections officials reversed a decision last year to close and change the borders of precincts with more than 5,500 voters in predominantly African-American communities. Community leaders said the move would have led to voter confusion, and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued.

“If engagement is a problem and voter apathy is a problem, why would you restrict access instead of expanding it?” said LaTosha Brown, a co-founder of the Black Voters Matter Fund, a voting rights group.

A few areas, mostly around large cities, have increased voting locations. Seven counties, including Fulton, added a combined total of 34 precincts since 2012, according to the AJC’s analysis. Overall, there are 180 fewer precincts in Georgia in 2018 compared with 2012.

Reconciling history

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Georgia and other states in the South imposed taxes before voterse were allowed to cast ballots, and they used literacy tests to attempt to disqualify voters. Those requirements were often arbitrarily enforced against African-American voters, while white voters weren’t always required to pay the tax or were given easy literacy tests

Today's voting battles are more nuanced, said Andra Gillespie, an Emory University political science professor.

Precinct closures can have legitimate reasons but have the result of discouraging voters, she said.

“It’s really hard to separate whether this is just partisan trickery or if there’s a racial undercurrent” because black voters generally vote for Democrats, Gillespie said. “The history of discrimination in the state and in this region suggests that there have been anti-democratic elements that wanted to deny what now constitutes almost one-third of the population the right to vote.”

Tactics such as relocating voting precincts, imposing voter ID laws and proposing limits on voting hours can make a difference in election results, especially in close races, she said.

On the other hand, early voting has given voters the flexibility to cast ballots in the three weeks before an election. In the 2016 presidential election, about 59 percent of ballots were cast in advance, either in person or by mail.

Closing polling places has a direct impact on voter participation, said Michael McDonald, a University of Florida political science professor who manages the United States Elections Project.

“The more difficult it is to vote, the lower your turnout rate. It’s a simple cost-benefit analysis,” he said. “It’s a balancing act. I can understand why a smaller county like Randolph County might wish to close one or two polling locations, but closing seven is suspicious.”

By the numbers

2,635: Total voting precincts in Georgia

214: Precincts eliminated in 53 counties since 2012

34: Precincts added in seven counties since 2012

6.7 million: Registered voters in Georgia

2,541: Average voters per precinct

How we got the story

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution analyzed the number of voting precincts in each of Georgia’s 159 counties in 2012 and 2018 to find out how many had been closed. The AJC’s analysis found that 214 precincts were shuttered in 53 counties, many of them since a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2013 lifted federal oversight of changes to voting locations. The numbers also showed that many of these poll closures occurred in counties with high numbers of low-income and minority residents.