The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Majority-black Georgia county fires consultant who wants to close two-thirds of its polling places

Voters cast their ballots at Chase Street Elementary for Georgia’s primary election in Athens, Ga., in May 2018. (Joshua L. Jones/Athens Banner-Herald via AP)

CUTHBERT, Ga. — Officials in Randolph County, Ga., have fired the consultant whose proposal to close two-thirds of the polling places in this majority black county was blasted by voting rights activists.

The move comes ahead of a scheduled Friday vote on the plan to close seven of nine polling places, requiring some residents in the rural county to travel up to 10 miles to vote at their new precincts.

Michael Malone, who had been hired by the county last spring to run elections after the elections supervisor quit, had told elections officials that the polling places needed to be shuttered because they were not in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.

Georgia voting rights activists move to block a plan to close two-thirds of polling places in a majority black county

In a letter Tuesday to Malone, county attorney Tommy Coleman told him to “take no further action or carry out any services on behalf of the Board of Elections.”

In an interview, Coleman said that he expected the board to reject Malone’s proposal. “I would be most surprised person in Georgia if it passes. I anticipate it being a short meeting.” he said.

But activists are still planning to pack the meeting, saying they remain wary of the board that took the proposal seriously in the first place. They say the board didn’t reach out to residents to discuss the plan. Instead a local activist saw it in the legal ads of the local newspaper and sounded the alarm.

“We will be at the Board of Elections’ meeting tomorrow, and we will stay engaged with the community in Randolph,” Andrea Young, executive director of the ACLU of Georgia, said in a statement Thursday.

Residents and activists were concerned because Randolph County and other rural areas around the state have a history of enacting laws and policies that made it harder for black people to register and vote.

Malone also raised suspicion because he was on a list of consultants recommended by the secretary of state’s office. He made a campaign contribution to Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, who also is secretary of state and the Georgia’s top elections official. Malone also said at a meeting with angry Randolph County residents that Kemp had told him to look for opportunities to consolidate polling places around the state, but he later walked back the comment.

Kemp is facing a competitive and closely watched race with Stacey Abrams, a former Democratic leader of the state House, who is aiming to become the country’s first black female governor.

Both Abrams and Kemp denounced the plan to close the Randolph County precincts.

Chris Harvey, the state elections director, sent a letter to J. Scott Peavy, a member of the Randolph elections board, chastising him for his handling of the controversy. Kemp also expressed his “frustration with the inaccurate statements about our office’s role throughout this entire process.”

“You have created a national media spectacle by seeking to make major changes right before an election and failing to act in a decisive manner that is responsive to the demands of voters in Randolph County,” Harvey said in the letter.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misidentified the author of the letter to J. Scott Peavy as Brian Kemp. State elections director Chris Harvey wrote the letter, and the story has been corrected.