In a victory for voting rights advocates everywhere today, Georgia's Randolph County Board of Elections struck down a controversial proposal that would have shuttered seven of the county's nine polling places, after deliberating for less than a minute.
"The Board followed the statutory process to consider the 'proposal,'" the board said in its statement. "We conducted two public hearings not required by statute. 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."
Randolph County, tucked into the Southwest corner of the Peach State, is a rural, poor community of about 7,000 people. The town represents the demographic shift in Georgia's population that runs counter to its historical segregationist politics: although a Confederate monument stands in the town square, 61% of the population is African-American, and the county has consistently voted Democratic in presidential elections since 1992. Likewise, Georgia is now one of the most diverse states in the country across several categories, including socioeconomics, industry, and household/marital-status diversity.
But this has not stopped the mostly white, mostly Republican government from trying to hold on to power however they can. Since 2005, they have controlled the governor's office and the state legislature, as well as a majority of congressional districts. Although whites are less than 60% of the population, they made up more than 90% of GOP voters in the primary last spring that nominated Secretary of State Brian Kemp against the Democrat, Stacey Abrams, who if she wins, will be the first black female governor in America.
Like his Kansas counterpart, Kris Kobach, Kemp has a nasty history of voter suppression. Since 2010, he has launched investigations into organizations that register minority voters, and purged 35,000 of them from the rolls. 66% of those rejected were African-American, and Asian-Americans and Latinos were six times as likely as whites to become ineligible to vote. In addition, Georgia has become a cybersecurity nightmare, since its electronic voting machines - all of which still run on Windows 2000 - can be easily hacked and the vote totals destroyed.
When Randolph County's Board of Elections supervisor abruptly quit last spring, leaving them with only two members, they brought on Mike Malone, who had come "highly recommended" from Kemp's office according to fellow board member J. Scott Peavy (Malone had donated $250.00 to Kemp's campaign.) A few months after joining, Malone raised his proposal to shutter two-thirds of polling sites, which he said did not comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Making polling places more accessible for disabled Americans is a worthy goal in and of itself, but closing the locations rather than fixing them struck many as a naked goal to suppress the vote. "They have had decades to fix these issues and have had elections in these polling places...why haven’t these issues been fixed? And why, instead of fixing them, are you shutting them down?” Georgia ACLU member Sean Young complained.
The ACLU threatened to sue the county if the proposal went through, claiming that the closures would adversely affect voter turnout, since many of the voters who'd be unable to vote were less likely to own a car and would have to walk for as much as three hours to get to one of the other polling places due to inadequate public transportation. One of the precincts Malone's plan would harm had a 96.7% African-American population.
Another pre-suit letter came from the Lawyer's Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, led by Kristen Clarke. "We are prepared to use every tool in our arsenal to protect the rights of Black voters seeking meaningful access to the ballot box this election cycle," she said. “There is no way to ignore the fact that this is a unique and historic election cycle now underway in Georgia. We are poised and ready to fight back against voter suppression whenever it rears its ugly head across the state,”
Malone told Randolph County residents that the "consolidation" (as he called it) of their polling places was recommended by Kemp's office, and that enacting the plan would result in reduced election costs by creating "combined vote centers." While there is such a thing as "combined vote centers," they exist primarily in states that have made it easier to vote through processes like automatic-vote-by-mail - a process Georgia doesn't have. Kemp eventually distanced himself from Malone and his proposal, and his elections director, Chris Harvey, wrote to Malone that he had created "a national media spectacle by...failing to act in a decisive manner that is responsive to the demands of voters." Yesterday, before his proposal was voted on, the board of supervisors fired him.
“This is a victory for African-American voters across Georgia who are too often subject to a relentless campaign of voter suppression," Clarke said today. "The right to vote s the most sacred civil right in our democracy and we stand fully prepared to defend that right throughout the midterm election cycle.”