Access to the ballot box has become a contentious issue in the 2018 midterm election cycle. Georgia authorities were forced to backtrack this year from a plan to close all but two polling locations in a majority-black county. Authorities in majority-Latino Dodge City, Kan., announced they would be offering free bus rides to the sole polling place for the city of 28,000 after public outcry over a decision to move the voting site outside the city limits, a mile from the nearest public transit stop.
Federal data suggests that if current voting site trends continue, such disputes may become more common: Between the 2012 and 2016 elections, the number of physical polling places reported to the Election Assistance Commission by local authorities fell by nearly 3,000, from 119,968 locations in 2012 to 116,990 in 2016, according to data released late last year by the agency. That followed a drop from over 132,000 polling places reported in 2008.
Some states, including Indiana and Wyoming, reported reductions in their number of physical polling places by well over 20 percent, according to a Washington Post analysis of the data. Among the 35 states and the District with complete, comparable data for both 2012 and 2016, 18 reported net reductions in their numbers of physical polling places, 15 reported increases, and two reported no change.
From the above chart we’ve excluded 16 states: 14 of them were missing polling place data for at least one -- and in some cases all -- counties for either 2012 or 2016. Two other states, Colorado and Washington, implemented vote-by-mail programs in 2013 and 2011, respectively. Those resulted in massive polling place closures but had little affect on overall voter participation.
When polling places are closed, critics often allege that the closures were done with a particular political intent, usually to make it harder for certain groups, such as black voters, to cast ballots. But the federal data suggest there are a variety of reasons polling sites are closed.
Nationwide there has also been a trend toward increased early voting, according to the Election Assistance Commission. In a number of states, polling place closures can be explained by “the corresponding decrease in in-person voters on Election Day,” according to the commission.
One particular area of concern to voting rights advocates has been jurisdictions previously subject to pre-clearance for all changes to voting law under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, a requirement which was eliminated by the Supreme Court in 2013. These jurisdictions, including nine states in their entirety, had been subject to extra federal scrutiny because of a history of discriminatory voting regulations.
With those pre-clearance requirements eliminated, voting rights advocates warned of increased polling place closures in Southern states, possibly with the intent to make it harder for black voters to vote.
The state data collected by the Election Assistance Commission paints a complicated picture of polling closures in these areas. Some of the affected states, including Alabama and South Carolina, increased their total number of polling locations between 2012 and 2016. Others, such as Arizona and Louisiana, reported significant drops.
The available county-level data offers some insights on where in these and other states polls were opening and closing between 2012 and 2016. On their own, these figures show no apparent relationship between the proportion of nonwhite voters in a county and changes in the number of polling locations.
But the county-level data may simply not be granular enough to fully test this relationship. For instance, it may be the case that authorities in some counties are making polling place changes that predominantly affect precincts with large black populations. Reductions in polling places in those precincts could be offset by increases elsewhere, which would leave the net county-level numbers unaffected.
Part of the reason for the pre-clearance requirement under the Voting Rights Act was to screen for potentially discriminatory changes like these that would be hard to detect otherwise. With that layer of oversight eliminated, voting rights advocates warn that “in the vast majority of instances, closures have gone unnoticed, unreported and unchallenged.” A recent analysis by Vice News found, for instance, that the jurisdictions formerly subject to pre-clearance closed about 20 percent more polling places, per capita, than jurisdictions elsewhere.
Beyond those issues, any poll closures in the former pre-clearance states are of potential concern simply because those states tend to have some of the strictest voting laws in the nation, making it more difficult for citizens who live there to vote. Four of the nine former pre-clearance states, for instance -- Mississippi, Alabama, South Carolina and Virginia -- offer no early voting periods and allow voters to use absentee ballots only under certain circumstances, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Poll closures in those states are likely to impose more hardship on voters than closures in places that offer and encourage other voting options.
The remaining county-level data shows a patchwork of poll openings and closures across the nation. Some areas, including Massachusetts, Vermont and Delaware, reported significant increases in the number of polling locations from 2012 to 2016. Despite being not particularly competitive in presidential elections, those states all saw increases in voter turnout over that time period.
One final potential source of variation in the numbers above is data availability. Many counties and some entire states are missing polling place data for 2012 or 2016. As with any data set, the remaining numbers may also be subject to error depending on how diligent local authorities were in reporting accurate figures to the Election Assistance Commission.