The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

States are closing polling places. That hurts democracy.

When it’s harder to vote, Black and Brown voters, disabled voters, and low-income voters get shut out.

Residents wait in line to cast ballots on the last day of early voting in Lost Mountain, Ga., on May 20. (Elijah Nouvelage/Bloomberg News)
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In last week’s primary election, Georgia residents cast their first votes since the state enacted what many call one of the nation’s most restrictive voting bills. Preliminary data shows that more than 90 percent of early voters cast in-person rather than mail-in ballots, which is likely due at least partly to the new law’s restrictions on absentee voting. That suggests that where polling places are located will be urgently important in the upcoming fall midterm elections, when more voters are expected.

However, many states have been consolidating polling places, offering fewer sites for voting. Political science research suggests that this trend could make it harder for communities of color to vote.

Poll closures since Shelby County v. Holder

Closing and consolidating polling sites are among the voter-suppression strategies that have gone unregulated since the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. In that ruling, the Supreme Court eliminated what’s called “pre-clearance” from the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, by declaring the VRA’s Section 4(b) unconstitutional. “Pre-clearance” identified jurisdictions with histories of racially discriminatory election practices, and required those states and counties to submit any proposed changes to election procedures to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to be evaluated for racially discriminatory effects before they could be put into action. Without this provision, states can now execute new voting laws and practices without any federal oversight beforehand.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights reports that in the 13 states that were previously covered by the VRA’s pre-clearance provision, 1,688 polling locations were closed between 2012 and 2018. A little less than half of those occurred in one state alone, Texas, which closed 750 polling places in an effort to centralize voting.

Elections officials often hail moving toward vote centers — a term for centralized polling locations — as a cost-saving measure. But studies show that unless vote centers are equitably located, trading local neighborhood polling places for countywide vote centers could make it harder for some groups of voters to get to the polls and lower the likelihood that they will cast ballots.

As recently as March of this year, an election board proposed closing all but one polling place in Lincoln County, Ga. County residents mobilized against this proposal, arguing that doing so would hurt rural voters, since many county residents live over 20 miles from the proposed central polling location.

According to the American Community Survey, only about 33 percent of households in Lincoln County own a vehicle. Long commutes to a centralized polling place would almost certainly make voting harder for citizens with little access to transportation, including those with low incomes or disabilities needing special travel accommodations.

Before the Shelby County ruling, election officials proposing relocations would need to prove that such a change would not have discriminatory impacts on marginalized voter groups. Now, no assessment needs to be done at all. These changes can be challenged after they’re implemented, using Section 2 of the VRA. But disparate impact is difficult to prove, making Section 2 cases often expensive and unsuccessful.

Though the plan was defeated, Lincoln County’s proposal hints at other poll closures that are likely to affect marginalized voters in this fall’s midterm elections.

Voter suppression started way before Jim Crow. It’s a longstanding American tradition.

Fewer polling places mean longer travel time to the polls and longer waits to vote.

Political science research finds that voter turnout is lowest in precincts where the distance to the polling place is highest. A 2020 study found that increasing distance to the poll by nearly one-fourth-of-a mile can decrease voter turnout by 2 to 5 percent, suggesting that distance to the polls influences how likely someone is to vote.

Poll closures do more than just make it harder for people to get to the ballot box. With fewer polling places, more people are voting at each site. That means longer lines and more waiting time to cast a ballot. Many working-class voters don’t have the luxury of extra hours to stand in line to vote.

Longer lines also severely affect voters with disabilities, making it difficult to stand or wait in public for extended periods of time. A 2017 study showed that among voters with disabilities, 30 percent reported difficulties at the polls, with “waiting in line” listed as one of the top difficulties.

Other political science studies find that policies that increase the time it takes to vote (or in the amount of information needed to figure out where and how to vote) make it harder for voters to cast ballots. That especially discourages turnout among groups with less resources.

The Senate failed to restore this voting rights protection. My research shows it worked.

Poll closures are more likely to affect voters of color

A look at which polls have been closed over the past few elections suggests that some jurisdictions are strategically closing locations used by voters of color to discourage them from voting. A statistical analysis of how Georgia polling locations changed from 2012 to 2018 estimates that increased distance to the polls prevented between 54,000 and 85,000 voters from casting ballots in the 2018 election. Black voters were 20 percent more likely than Whites to miss an election because of poll closures.

Political science studies support this finding, showing that polling place closures affect voters in majority-minority neighborhoods far more than they affect voters in largely White neighborhoods.

A 2020 study found that in the 2016 election, a one-mile increase in distance to a polling place reduced by 19 percent the voter turnout from districts with a high proportion of minority residents. However, majority-White neighborhoods experiencing a one-mile increase in distance saw only a 5 percent reduction in voter turnout.

In other words, reducing the number of polling places makes it harder for minority voters to cast ballots — keeping even some of the most determined voters from voting.

Reducing democracy

Where polling sites are located will significantly influence all voters’ ability to vote in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond — and therefore, their ability to be fairly represented. Reducing access to the polls effectively reduces access to democracy for some of the most marginalized groups in the United States: voters of color, voters with disabilities and low-income voters. Citizens and policymakers who want to expand access to democracy may wish to advocate for equitable placement of polling sites, and to pass legislation to protect the right to vote nationwide.

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Chelsea N. Jones, MPP (@SojournerChels), is a PhD candidate in political science and a senior policy fellow in the Voting Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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