CUTHBERT, Ga. — Some residents of this town are old enough to remember when government officials would intimidate and punish black residents for trying to exercise the right to vote. Others, having come of age when an African American man was president of the United States, thought the days of such brazen discrimination were long past.
But nearly everyone saw a recent proposal to close more than two-thirds of the polling places in Randolph County, a predominantly black community in southwestern Georgia, as a reminder of the lingering traces of the state’s history of voter suppression.
After a week of ferocious pushback — including two packed town-hall meetings in which residents berated local elections officials, as well as warning letters, threats of lawsuits by civil rights groups and national media coverage — county officials fired the consultant who came up with the plan.
Then on Friday morning, the Randolph County Board of Elections voted down the proposal to close seven of its nine polling locations, saying no changes would be made. The meeting of the two-member board lasted no more than five minutes.
“In the United States, the right to vote is sacred,” the board said in a statement, adding that displays of interest and concern have been “overwhelming and . . . an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle.” It said the board’s only interest was in “making sure elections in Randolph County are fair and efficient.”
Activists and residents applauded the action and said they would continue to meet and share information to make sure their voting rights were not eroded.
In an interview Thursday ahead of the board’s vote, Tommy Coleman, the Randolph County attorney, said: “I’m quite sure the Board of Elections didn’t intend to disenfranchise any voters. . . . This morphed into something that wasn’t their intention.”
Coleman sent a letter to the consultant who came up with the plan, Michael Malone, advising him to “take no further action or carry out any services on behalf of the Board of Elections.” Malone had advised closing the facilities because, he said, they did not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Residents and activists criticized the Board of Elections for even entertaining such a proposal, now less than three months before a crucial midterm election in which Democrat Stacey Abrams is a strong contender to become the nation’s first black female governor.
Her challenger, Republican Brian Kemp, is the secretary of state and Georgia’s chief elections official. Kemp, who has supported and enforced tougher voter registration and identification laws, has dismissed calls to step down from overseeing his own election.
Malone was on a shortlist of referrals that the secretary of state’s office sent to Randolph County officials, who needed someone to step in and run their elections after the county supervisor quit in the spring. Malone, who has contributed to Kemp’s campaign, oversaw the May primary and last month’s runoff elections.
Kemp urged the county board to abandon the planned closures before the Friday meeting. On Thursday, state elections director Chris Harvey, who works for the secretary of state’s office, sent a letter sent to the county elections board chairman berating him for reaching out to ask for advice and for letting the matter to get out of hand.
“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 the voters in Randolph County,” Harvey wrote.
Randolph County, about 160 miles south of Atlanta, is a rural community of about 7,000 people, 61 percent of whom are black. African Americans also are a majority of the 4,000 voters in the county, which Democrat Hillary Clinton carried with 55 percent in the 2016 presidential election.
For resident Sandra Willis, who lives in Cuthbert, the county seat, the controversy stirred up a painful but proud moment in her family’s history. During the 1950s, her aunt, Charlie Will Thornton, worked with voting rights activists in Randolph County despite threats from officials that she could lose her teaching job in neighboring Terrell County.
When Thornton continued her activism, she not only was fired from her job, but she could not find work in any of the surrounding counties. She ended up working briefly as a maid for a local family before finally landing another teaching job in Meriwether County, about 100 miles north of Randolph County. Thornton worked in Meriwether for 30 years, eventually becoming a principal. After more than three decades, she was able to get hired in her hometown and retired from teaching in Randolph County.
“That right is something that she fought for . . . and it wasn’t that long ago,” Willis said in an interview, explaining why she joined others at meetings and rallies to protest the closures.
Willis said she thinks local officials backed off the plan because “they got scared because of all the media coming to town and exposing them.”
Activists also said it was a reminder of the need for Congress to restore portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, which was severely weakened by a 2013 Supreme Court decision. The ruling dropped a requirement that states with a history of voter suppression first seek Justice Department approval before making changes to voting laws and procedures.
The plan came to light when Bobby Jenkins, a 66-year-old retired schools superintendent and chairman of the Randolph County Democratic Party, saw the legal notice while reading the local paper.
“It was August 8, two days before my birthday,” he said in an interview. “I said, ‘This doesn’t sound right.’” He alerted other local activists, and the rally cry went out. The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, the Georgia NAACP and the state Democratic Party weighed in with letters and other support for local residents. The New Georgia Project, a voter education group, launched a petition drive to collect signatures from registered voters to block the move. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law in Washington offered legal advice.
Temeisha Moore, 34, grew up in Shellman, a town of less than 1,000 people in Randolph County. She shook as she talked about coming back home to teach in the public schools after graduating from the University of Georgia and finding that “not much has changed.”
She was incredulous that county officials relied on a legal notice in the newspaper and didn’t try harder to get the word out to residents about the proposal.
“I feel like we weren’t supposed to see it, but it happened that someone did see it and spread the word,” she said. “It doesn’t seem right that, right in the middle of an important election, they want to talk about closing those polling locations.”
On Wednesday, Black Voters Matter, a grass-roots effort to energize black voters in the rural south, held a rally in Cuthbert to urge residents to fight the proposal.
Marcia Killingsworth, who lives in the city of Edison in Calhoun County, was one of a handful of white people at the gathering in a restaurant that also serves as a community center for the town of about 3,700 residents. She said she heard about the controversy through the ACLU and her contacts with other progressives in the state.
“Voting rights are everybody’s issues. The right to vote is one of our, if not the most, fundamental rights that we have as Americans,” she said. “Restricting it or making it more challenging for anybody should be everybody’s concern.”
Republicans who control the state legislature and the executive branch “just keep putting up more and more hurdles” for some voters, Killingsworth said. “I think it’s to disenfranchise people who might vote against their power base.”