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.
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 people with disabilities. But some activists are suspicious of the board’s motives, noting that Randolph County is more than 55 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 runoffs, in which Kemp, helped by an endorsement from President 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 they hired 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 whether 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.”
The New Georgia Project was launched several years ago by Abrams to register and mobilize voters, especially voters of color and young people. Abrams no longer has a formal role with the organization.
Abrams, a former Democratic leader of the Georgia state House, and Kemp had a contentious relationship over the group’s efforts to sign up new voters. She has accused the secretary of state’s office of using illegal and discriminatory tactics to keep tens of thousands of potential voters off the rolls. He has accused the New Georgia Project of trying to add fraudulent voters to rolls. Legal challenges have been filed by both sides.
But Abrams and Kemp seem to be in agreement that Randolph County officials should not go through with the plan to eliminate the polling places.
Abrams issued a statement saying, “Every Georgian in every county deserves to have their voice represented at the voting booth and in our government. I am the only candidate in this race with a proven track record of fighting to make sure every Georgian can make their voice heard.”
Kemp said in a statement: “As soon as we learned about this proposal, we immediately contacted Randolph County to gather more information. Although state law gives localities broad authority in setting precinct boundaries and polling locations, we strongly urged local officials to abandon this effort and focus on preparing for a secure, accessible, and fair election for voters this November.”
Asked if Kemp has the authority to overrule local elections officials if they go ahead the closures, spokeswoman Candice Broce said via email that “Georgia’s bipartisan State Election Board has authority to adjudicate potential election law violations. Under state law, Kemp serves as Chairman in his capacity as Secretary of State.” She added that the board “can pursue violations of state law and bind local officials over to the Attorney General’s Office for administrative prosecution if, for example, a locality does not follow notice requirements to implement a precinct or polling place proposal.
Several groups, including the Georgia Democratic Party, Common Cause and the NAACP, have called on Kemp to step down from his position as secretary of state while he runs for governor. They says it is a conflict of interest for him to make decisions about election laws and procedures while he’s seeking the state’s top elected job. Kemp has said he will stay in the office until his term ends in January.