USA: Georgia county scraps plan to close most polling places

This combination of May 20, 2018, file photos shows Georgia gubernatorial candidates Stacey Abrams (D), left, and Brian Kemp (R) in Atlanta. (John Amis/AP)

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ATLANTA (AP) — Election officials in a majority black Georgia county voted Friday to scrap a widely condemned proposal to eliminate most of their polling places.

Concern about the proposal to close seven of nine voting locations in the rural county was “overwhelming,” and is “an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle,” the elections board in Randolph County said in a statement.

Voting and civil rights groups applauded the decision but said the episode demonstrates the need to restore Voting Rights Act protections that were tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The elections board, made up of a black woman and a white man, took about 30 seconds to vote down the proposal, county attorney Tommy Coleman said.

The plan to close polling places had drawn national media attention over the past week, and county officials were inundated with angry emails from all over the country in what Coleman called “a tsunami of attention.”

Critics questioned why a county would make it harder to vote during the hotly contested governor’s race. Georgia’s top elections official, Republican Brian Kemp, is running against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is trying to become Georgia’s first black governor. Both said they oppose the plan.

An independent consultant recommended the consolidation and said the seven polling places in question don’t comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The county fired that consultant in a letter sent Wednesday.

The polling places in question had all been used for the primary election in May and the primary runoff election in July, and officials should have been aware of ADA compliance issues.

Randolph County and the Department of Justice entered a settlement agreement in 2012 promising to fix the ADA violations in three years. The settlement specifically included a section on polling place compliance. A grant was used to fix issues in the courthouse, but the other updates didn’t happen, Coleman said.

Coleman said the decision not to close the polling places was in the best interest of the county, but “I don’t think this will affect how they operate.”

He said he didn’t know what would be done to address the ADA compliance problems, saying the county doesn’t have the money to make the necessary fixes, certainly not before the November election.

Civil rights groups and black lawmakers said black voters would be disenfranchised if the voting locations were shuttered. Census figures show the county, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) south of Atlanta, is more than 61 percent black, double the statewide percentage.

The circumstances leave “a reasonable observer to wonder whether the real motive behind these closures is indeed to make it harder for African Americans to cast a ballot,” American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia attorney Sean Young said in a letter sent to county officials Aug. 14.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU of Georgia sent a joint letter Wednesday to election officials in all 159 Georgia counties, urging them to avoid polling place changes that could disenfranchise voters.

On Thursday, leaders of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus strongly urged the county to keep them open. In a letter to Randolph County officials, the congressional group called it “a deliberate effort to disenfranchise an emerging and engaged demographic.”

The ACLU of Georgia said in a news release after the vote that the situation “demonstrates clearly the need to reinstate the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act,” which required “historically-discriminatory states such as Georgia to obtain pre-approval from a U.S. court or the U.S. Department of Justice before enacting any election changes to ensure that proposed changes would not discriminate against protected minorities.”
– BRINLEY HINEMAN I AP