by Vanessa Williams, WashingtonPost via sandiegouniontribune.com
Voting rights activists in Georgia say they will launch a petition drive in an effort to collect enough signatures of registered voters to block a proposal to close more than two-thirds of polling precincts in a predominantly black county ahead of this fall’s general election.
The plan to shutter the voting sites in Randolph County, a rural community about 2½ hours south of Atlanta, has been drawn dozens of local residents and progressive groups to two public hearings in recent days. The American Civil Liberties Union filed a formal protest with the county’s board of elections.
Brian Kemp, Georgia’s secretary of state, which oversees elections operations throughout the state, has issued a statement urging Randolph County officials to “abandon this effort.” Kemp also is the Republican nominee in one of the country’s most-watched gubernatorial contests. The Democratic nominee, Stacey Abrams, a former state legislator, is seeking to become the nation’s first black female governor.
The two-member county election board – a third member stepped down recently – has scheduled a vote for Friday on the proposal to shutter seven of the county’s nine polling places, citing problems including facilities in disrepair or inaccessible to persons with disabilities. But some activists are suspicious of the board’s motives, noting that Randolph County is 60 percent black and many residents have low incomes. The county, which covers 431 square miles, has no public transportation system.
All nine of the polling places were used for the May primaries and less than a month ago for statewide run-offs, in which Kemp, helped by an endorsement from President Donald Trump, beat Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle for the GOP nomination.
Local news outlets reported heated discussions at meetings on Thursday and Friday, with residents and activists alleging the move was aimed at suppressing turnout in the county, in which more than 55 percent of the voters are black and have backed Democratic candidates in statewide elections.
County officials and a consultant hired by local officials said the closures were necessary because the sites were not compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and there was not time to fix them before the Nov. 6 general election. They also suggested that affected residents could vote by absentee ballot.
“You don’t solve problems of accessibility for people with disabilities by reducing access for people without disabilities,” said Andrea Young, executive director of the Georgia ACLU, which wrote a letter to the board stating that the closures would be a violation of the Voting Rights Act because it would have a negative effect on African-American voters. The group noted that African-Americans make up more than 96 percent of the voters at one of the polling places slated for closure.
Unsure if the board will be persuaded by the arguments for keeping the polling places open, some activists will try to stop the plan by using a state law that forbids the closure of voting sites if 20 percent of the registered voters in the affected precinct object to the change. The county currently has just over 4,000 registered voters.
Nse Ufot, executive director of the New Georgia Project, a voter registration and education group, said activists will begin collecting signatures Sunday, spreading the word at morning church services.
“We want to see to it that the hundreds of students we registered at Andrew College and the people we’ve registered in Randolph are able to exercise their sacred, fundamental right to vote,” Ufot said. The goal is to submit the petition before the board’s scheduled Friday vote.
A similar petition drive overturned a decision two years ago by elections officials in Macon-Bibb County to relocate a polling place from a school to the sheriff’s office.
“These polling place closures are part of a stark pattern that we are seeing across Georgia whereby officials are working to make it harder for African Americans and other minorities to vote,” said Kristen Clarke, president and executive director for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law. “The more communities mobilize to turn out the vote, the harsher the voter suppression efforts undertaken by officials. We are prepared to use every tool in our arsenal to ensure that African American voters are able to have meaningful access to the polls this election cycle.”