Shuttered Polling Sites Cast Shadow Over Midterm Elections

polling place closures
Data from The Leadership Conference Education Fund (PDF) and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Photo credit: Brutal Deluxe / Wikimedia

A small Georgia county made national headlines last week when news broke that local election officials planned to close seven of nine polling sites in the overwhelmingly African-American jurisdiction.

After an uproar, Randolph county’s sites were saved, but that outcome is the exception, not the rule, in such cases.

“Too often, these are intentional acts of voter suppression led by racial animus,” Laura Grace, the Election Project Manager with the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights, told WhoWhatWhy by email.

Most shuttered polling sites don’t receive national attention. In Georgia alone, local officials have closed more than 200 sites since 2012. The Georgia examples figure in a growing national trend, with stark implications for the upcoming midterm elections, reports the Pew Charitable Trust.

Local leadership has closed nearly 1,000 sites nationwide since the Supreme Court struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in its 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Eric Holder.

Related: 5 Years After ‘Shelby County,’ Democracy Has Suffered

Previously, states had to notify the federal government of any changes to election law — including closing polling sites. But the Shelby decision ruled the “preclearance” requirement unconstitutional. Immediately, Republican lawmakers began passing voter ID laws and closing polling sites.  

“Preventative tools have been removed and therefore the field is clear,” Liz Kennedy, senior director of government and democratic reform at the left-leaning Center for American Progress, told WhoWhatWhy. “If you can change the rules of the political process you can prevent people from exercising their political power.”

Closing election precincts has historically been a strategy to keep people from the ballot box. It is often rationalized as a cash-saving strategy to reduce the burden of staffing and equipment maintenance. In Georgia, a white consultant suggested officials target their penny-pinching in areas with large black populations and high rates of poverty.

That the recent attempts to close polling sites in Georgia occurred in the midst of a fraught gubernatorial election pitting Stacey Abrams, the state’s first-ever black female candidate for governor, against the conservative Secretary of State Brian Kemp came as no surprise to many critics.

Related: Stacey Abrams Shows Democrats the Way Forward

Georgia, polling place

Early voting in Cobb County, Georgia, 2012. Photo credit: KF-in-Georgia / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Polling site location has a substantial influence on who votes. In rural areas, some polling places serve a handful of voters each election season — a fact often used to explain closures in communities with large populations of minority voters. In Indiana, the NAACP recently filed a lawsuit in response to a state law which would have closed polling sites in Lake County that had less than 600 “active voters.” The closures would have an outsized impact on Latino and black communities, the plaintiffs argued.

Had Randolph County gone ahead and closed more than three-quarters of its polling sites, many residents would have had to travel several miles to cast a ballot in a part of the state with poor public transportation. And closing polling sites necessarily overburdens the remaining precincts, creating the long lines that dissuade people from voting.

Part of the challenge in Georgia and elsewhere is a lack of reliable information. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that the Secretary of State’s office headed by the Republican candidate for governor claimed to have no data on the number of closed polling locations statewide until reporters conducted an independent investigation.

Local election officials can operate under the radar. Many fail to even notify voters in their jurisdictions of changes in polling locations. Research from the Leadership Conference Education Fund found that communities have come to rely on advocacy and civil rights organizations — as well as journalists for such crucial information.

Related: GOP State Officials Are the Real Threat to Democracy

Lacking federal oversight since the 2013 Supreme Court decision, citizens are forced to rely on lawsuits to defend their voting rights — which require considerable time and resources.

“We’re clearly seeing where we now have to use those kinds of eyes and ears on the ground,” Kennedy said.

Certain states or counties have taken advantage of the post-Shelby landscape, critics charge, to manipulate the process and prevent their citizens’ voices from being heard. Ultimately, Kennedy says, that’s why we need to restore federal protection of voting rights.

Correction notice, 9/6/2018, 1:22 p.m.: An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Laura Grace as an attorney for the Lawyer’s Committee on Civil Rights.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from sign (John S. Quarterman / Flickr – CC BY 2.0) and brick (Philip Bragg / Flickr – CC BY-NC 2.0).

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9 responses to “Shuttered Polling Sites Cast Shadow Over Midterm Elections”

  1. When is this election drama going to be history? We cannot be America with this high tech lynching tactic.

  2. Angie Cosma says:

    We as American citizens who live in a democracy need to fight to keep our civil rights and our Constitution intact at all times. Otherwise we open the door to dictatorship and other types of government that is opposing our founding fathers who made our country great.Let freedom ring! VOTE let our voice be heard.

  3. RE Corby says:

    I have volunteered at polling places in New Orleans going back to the Bush/Kerry election in ‘04. In my precinct, an upscale white neighborhood, I voted in 15 minutes. In the precincts that are primarily black, the voters had at least an hour’s wait. De facto Southern discrimination.

  4. Mary Beerman says:

    Yes, the GOP started all this nonsense before President Obama’s 2nd term to try to keep him from serving his second. No one said Trump’s admin started this garbage, but he is glad to have it. The GOP can only win by cheating. A true American would want EVERY citizen to vote in every election instead of cutting out certain groups.

  5. Andrew G Campbell says:

    2013 Supreme Court decision huh? Well before Trump and his nominees….let’s see the spin on this…

  6. victor ferguson says:

    As in all stories, there are two sides to this one. Your article takes a very slanted view supporting your ideals. Here is a quote taken from one of your sources: “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.”

  7. Brian says:

    “So many of our Christians have what I call the goo-goo syndrome: good government. They want everybody to vote. I don’t want everybody to vote. Elections are not won by a majority of people, they never have been from the beginning of our country and they are not now. As a matter of fact, our leverage in the elections quite candidly goes up as the voting populace goes down.”
    Paul Weyrich, Remarks to the Religious Roundtable (August 1980).

  8. David says:

    You slant this story towards it being Repubs who are rigging the votes. Dems are in it up to their neck, yet few are making sure they get nailed for doing so other than a few citizen-formed groups I see neither party leadership supporting.

  9. Angie says:

    It looks like the elections in the Southern states are just a facade.

    As they are in most of this phony country.