Activists Wary As South Georgia County Moves To Close Three Polling Places

Randolph County plans to close three polling places that are housed in buildings used to store fire trucks.

Johnny Kauffman / WABE

Voting in elections next year could be more difficult in one rural, South Georgia county.

The Randolph County elections board plans to close three of its nine polling places nearly a year after it rejected a proposal months before the midterm elections in 2018 to close seven of the nine.

At that time, the county drew a swarm of national attention, and the threat of a lawsuit.

Randolph County is home to around 7,000 people spread out over 428 square miles. For comparison Gwinnett County is about the same size, but its population is over 900,000.

The majority of Randolph County residents are black, and the poverty rate is nearly double the national average. The region has limited public transportation options.

Last year, civil rights groups argued closing seven of nine polling places would make voting especially difficult for African-Americans and people with low incomes who live on the edges of the county. Those claims bear unique weight in an area of the country known for its history of racial violence and organized efforts to block people of color from voting.

If polling places are shuttered in Randolph County, it would add to a nationwide trend that’s more pronounced in states with a history of voting discrimination against people of color.

Even though the current plan to close three of nine polling places  in Randolph County is a scaled-back version of last year’s, activists focused on expanding voting access in the area worry it’s a first step toward more polling place closures.

I think deep down they still want to want to follow the plan that they suggested last year,” said Bobby Jenkins, chair of the Randolph County Democratic Party. “It looks like it makes a lot of sense, but they are forgetting an unintended consequence that it ends up being voter suppression for a great deal of people.”

According to the county, the current plan would affect 446 white voters, and 54 black voters.

Tommy Coleman, a lawyer who represents Randolph County, argued it doesn’t make sense for a county with such a small population to have nine polling places.

“It’ll probably save them a little over $25,000,” said Coleman, “Plus, they were all substandard, they were all in fire stations, if you will, that were prefabricated metal buildings designed to hold fire trucks in rural areas and there’s no heating or cooling, and certainly no handicap restrooms.”

The county commission decided not to upgrade the buildings, Coleman said, and the elections board decided to close them, which they think is “reasonable.”

Jenkins doesn’t see the cost savings as substantial, even when considering the county’s economic troubles, and he thinks it’s time for the county to improve the conditions of the polling places.

He worries potential voters, especially those with low incomes, may not be able to make the trip to a polling place if it’s farther from their home.

“I mean what’s the price of a vote,” Jenkins said. “You know you have people who gave their lives for others to have the right to vote.”

Coleman said the county is trying to find a way to pay for free transportation to the polls on Election Day, but he’s not sure where the money will come from.

“Of course everybody has a right to vote,” said Coleman, “And we want to make it convenient for everybody. But you know you’re not gonna’ put a voting precinct in everybody’s kitchen either.”

Civil rights groups are trying to monitor which counties in Georgia have closed polling places, or are considering closing them, and whether a lawsuit might block the closure.

“If you want to stop changes, like a polling place closures, you’re essentially playing whack-a-mole, going from county to county,” said John Powers, an attorney with the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law.

The Lawyers Committee was one of a number of organizations that threatened a lawsuit over Randolph County’s plan last year to close seven of nine polling places.

In 2013, the U.S Supreme Court ruled in a 5-4 decision that jurisdictions with a history of voting discrimination are no longer required to pre-clear changes to voting policies, like polling place closures, with the U.S. Department of Justice.

VICE News found that since that ruling, jurisdictions formerly under pre-clearance “shut down, on average almost 20 percent more polling stations per capita than jurisdictions in the rest of the country.”

Powers said the Lawyers Committee is still reviewing Randolph County’s current plan to close polling places, and that the organization would take legal action if necessary.

He said the Lawyers Committee has been involved in fights over polling place closures in multiple Georgia counties, and he expects they will contact more jurisdictions over the issue in the coming weeks.

Since the 2013 Supreme Court decisions, Powers said, “you have many more polling place closures and other changes that jurisdictions are adopting that ultimately make it more difficult for voters to exercise their right to cast a ballot.”