POLITICS
08/24/2018 08:18 am ET Updated Aug 24, 2018

Majority-Black Georgia County Rejects Plan To Close Nearly All Its Polling Places

Civil rights groups threatened lawsuits if the changes were made.

Officials in a rural southwest Georgia county on Friday voted down a proposal to close nearly all of its polling places amid criticism that doing so would discriminate against African-Americans living there.

The county’s board of elections and registration in Randolph County rejected the proposal to close seven of the county’s nine polling locations. Michael Malone, a consultant hired by the board in April, recommended the closures as a cost-saving measure, saying that the seven locations were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Malone was fired Thursday.

The two-person board made the decision seconds into a short meeting Friday morning, WALB reported

In a statement released after the meeting, the board of elections said the county’s population and tax base had declined in recent years and said there had been discussions about the number of polling places for years as a way to save money. Still, it acknowledged the controversy prompted by the proposal and said it would not approve it.

“In the United States, the right to vote is sacred. It is a right that many generations of brave men and women have fought and died for. 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.”

“After consideration of the proposal presented by our consultant and considering the public input from the hearing, we have elected not to proceed with closing any polling places in Randolph County,” the statement continued.

The Georgia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and other civil rights groups forcefully objected to the proposal after it was announced in a local newspaper a few weeks ago. The group said the proposal would have a disproportionate impact on African-Americans, who make up 60 percent of the county’s population. A little over 30 percent of the approximately 7,000 people in the county live in poverty, and the ACLU said it would cause longer driving times for those with a car and noted that some of the affected voters who may not have cars lived in areas without public transportation. The county has 4,032 registered voters, according to statistics from the Georgia secretary of state’s office.

During two public meetings last week, Malone said voters would not be disenfranchised by the plan, but failed to fill in details about why it was necessary. While he showed pictures of bathrooms and parking access at sites proposed for closure, he did not say why the county would be unable to provide a temporary fix on Election Day. The county had no record of a recent formal analysis of the ADA compliance with the polling locations and what it would cost to fix them.

“This is a victory for African-American voters across Georgia who are too often subject to a relentless campaign of voter suppression,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, one of the groups that warned the county against closing the polls, said in a statement. “The defeat of this proposal also shows the power of resistance and the impact that we can have by leveraging our voices against injustice. Officials in Randolph County saw the writing on the wall.”

Critics accused Malone of working on behalf of Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a Republican running for governor, to close the precincts. Kemp strongly denied the accusation and said he opposed closing the polling locations.

“We are pleased that local officials listened to Randolph County voters and rejected this proposal,” Candice Broce, a Kemp spokeswoman, said in an email Friday. “Now, we encourage them to focus their efforts on preparing for a secure, accessible, and fair election this November.”

A majority of voters in the county supported Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Until 2013, Georgia was one of a handful of states that had to get changes to its elections cleared by the federal government under the Voting Rights Act. But in a case called Shelby County v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court said the formula used to determine which states had to get changes approved was unconstitutional. The decision allowed jurisdictions like Randolph County to make changes, like the one nearly approved Friday, without federal review.

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