Georgia election officials reject plans to close polls in mostly black county ahead of midterms

Poll workers Chris Nolan, left, and Raphallia Edwards prepare signage at Henry W. Grady High School in Atlanta on Tuesday May 22, 2018.

WASHINGTON – In the wake of an uproar from civil rights and voting rights groups, election officials in a small rural county in Georgia voted Friday not to close polling sites in the mostly black precincts less than three months before midterm elections.

Local election officials in Randolph County, Georgia, had come under fire for considering a proposal to close seven of nine polls in the predominately black county. State and national civil rights and voting rights groups had rallied to oppose the plan, arguing it was an attempt at voter suppression.

Several groups, including the ACLU of Georgia, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, had threatened lawsuits. State and local groups launched a petition drive and held a rally to protest the proposal.

“This is a victory for African-American voters across Georgia who are too often subject to a relentless campaign of voter suppression,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The right to vote is the most sacred civil right in our democracy, and we stand fully prepared to defend that right throughout the midterm election cycle.”.

The effort has galvanized national civil rights and voting rights groups aiming to block attempts to suppress minority voter turnout in Georgia and in other states ahead of critical midterm elections.

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The Congressional Black Caucus urged county election officials Thursday to drop the plan, saying it would violate the 1965 Voting Rights Act to close the polling sites so close to an election.

“We are deeply concerned that the bedrock tenets of democracy would be under attack should this proposal be adopted and implemented,” the caucus wrote in a letter.

The two members of the Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration voted unanimously not to make changes. The board, which has one vacancy, held two hearings on the proposal.

Tommy Coleman, an attorney for for the county in southwest Georgia, said he doesn’t think the board members meant harm by considering the proposal but that it might have been ill-timed.

“It gives you the appearance that you’re trying to do something to alter the vote in November. I don’t think that’s the case. I’m certain it isn’t,” he said. “The people who do this in rural Georgia – these two people – are just volunteers.”.

The issue garnered national attention in part because of the historic nomination of Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, who could make history as the first African-American woman governor in the country if she wins in November.

Abrams and Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is also running for governor, both called for officials to drop the plan.

The proposal was offered earlier this year after the county hired a consultant when the election superintendent quit three weeks before the May primary, Coleman said. The consultant, Mike Malone, recommended closing the polling sites because they didn’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).

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But, Coleman said, the proposal “doesn’t seem to be backed up with any real data.”.

Critics of the proposal argue the sites were used for elections earlier in the year and in the years since the county was called out in 2016 for not complying with the ADA.

“Why all of a sudden do you want it to be ADA compliant when you haven’t complied in all of this time?” Said Helen Butler, executive director of the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples Agenda.

“What is the rush if it wasn’t a rush in all these years,” added Butler, who also serves on the Board of Elections in Morgan County, Georgia.

Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a nonpartisan civic engagement group, said county election officials could have moved polls to local churches and other sites that are ADA compliant.

“This is a blatant attempt at voter suppression,” she said Thursday. “Voter suppression in Georgia is a lot more sophisticated, I think, than people realize.”.

Coleman described Randolph County, the sixth smallest in the state, as very poor and struggling with a declining population and economic base.

He said there have been discussions about the cost of polling sites because there were few voters there. For example, he said, one precinct had about 100 people.

But Coleman said the timing of proposing closures could have been better.

“It was probably ill-timed. We certainly went through the primary and the runoff from the primary and why we would need to do it before November in the teeth of this kind of heightened political environment, I think, is what the problem was,” he said. “It needs to be given more thought away from elections.”.

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There have been lawsuits in the past over the county’s noncompliance with the ADA, Coleman said. The county used a $200,000 grant to upgrade some buildings, including the courthouse. Coleman said he suspects there are some buildings, including some of the firehouses that have been used for polling sites, that are not in full compliance.

Coleman couldn’t say what steps the county will take to comply with the ADA, but he said, “I think they will now.”.


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