Georgia and the right to vote: deep mistrust of a plan to close polling stations

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LINCOLN COUNTY, Ga. — The US Senate voting rights showdown may be over for now. But the problem is still simmering in part of the northeast Georgia countryside where local officials recently outlined a plan to close seven polling places and consolidate them into one.

The proposal in Lincoln County has drawn attention and anger from major voting rights groups and suspicion from some black residents who say the effort is just the latest example of voter suppression in a state where Republicans recently passed a restrictive new law. Hundreds of disgruntled residents have filed protest petitions that could lead local authorities to scale it back.

But local officials say current polling places need upgrading — and that in a county where about two-thirds of the 7,700 residents are white, the plan is simply an effort to make running the election easier. The remaining site would be near the polling station that currently serves the county’s only predominantly black neighborhood.

“They seem to think I’m trying to stop black people from voting,” said the chief electoral officer, an African-American woman named Lilvender Bolton. She would administer the plan that was under consideration last week by a majority Republican-appointed board of two black and three white members.

In Georgia, a state where razor-thin voting margins helped sway White House and Senate control, any effort to change the voting process has become fiercely contested. And after recent efforts by Republicans in Georgia and across the country to restrict voting, suspicions are high.

For decades, a proposal like Lincoln County’s would have been subject to review by the Justice Department to determine if it was discriminatory, a step mandated by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and often called “preclearance”. But that system was effectively gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, and hasn’t returned since, despite efforts to revive it like last week’s Senate debate.

David J. Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said the failure to reinstate preclearance this year was a missed opportunity.

Mr. Becker was careful to note that he could not say whether Lincoln County’s consolidation plan was politically motivated or well-intentioned. But with preclearance, he said, residents in areas like Lincoln County would at least have felt that a third party had looked closely at whether a proposed change to voting in their community would make it harder for people to vote. minority groups.

“Preclearance was a stamp of approval that election officials could use to quell exactly that kind of divisive rhetoric that’s been circulating,” he said.

In 2019, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a Washington-based nonprofit civil rights organization, released a report analyzing areas formerly under federal scrutiny and found a loss of 1,173 polling places between elections. midterms of 2014 and 2018.

Fully understanding “the potentially discriminatory impact of these closures,” the report’s authors write, would require “precisely the kind of ‘analysis’ that the DOJ has conducted under preclearance.”

Even voting rights groups acknowledge that there are sometimes legitimate reasons to close polls: Populations change, and sometimes the way people vote changes too. More voters could start choosing to vote by mail or at early voting locations rather than in their constituency.

In Lincoln County, Ms. Bolton, the county’s chief electoral officer, says the change would make it easier for her to manage Election Day. Her small staff are stressed, she said, by the responsibility of setting up and tearing down the complicated electronic voting machines in seven locations spread across the county’s 257 square miles.

Washington’s failed vote overhaul effort comes after Republican state lawmakers, following former President Donald J. Trump’s 2020 defeat, moved to overhaul electoral systems in dozens of states, including Georgia, often in the name of protecting against dubious claims of voter fraud promulgated by Mr. Trump and his allies.

The Georgia legislature has also handed control of some or all local electoral board appointments in six counties to conservative judges or Republican-controlled county commissions.

Given these recent developments and the long history of racist deprivation of black voters in the South, some voters in Lincoln County say they would be foolish not to suspect they were being targeted.

“How could you not see him as a role model?” said Charlie Murray, 68, a black resident who votes at a nearby church far from the county seat.

“They make it harder for people to vote,” said another black resident, Franklin Sherman, 29, a truck driver who usually votes in the same place.

Lincoln County was among six counties in Georgia in which rules for selecting local election board members were recently changed by the state legislature.

County officials initially asked lawmakers for the change because they wanted to be able to stagger members’ terms, said Walker T. Norman, a longtime county commission chairman and Republican.

Another change — ending the tradition of letting the Democratic and Republican parties each choose a board member — was prompted by a state Supreme Court ruling, which was interpreted to say that private entities cannot appoint members to government bodies, he said.

The legislation mandating the changes was sponsored by State Senator Lee Anderson, a Republican who co-sponsored Georgia’s restrictive ballot bill last year. He also publicly supported a baseless and unsuccessful challenge by the United States Supreme Court to the results of the 2020 presidential election in Georgia and three other states. In a recent interview, Mr. Anderson said that in making the changes to the Local Elections Board, he was simply responding to the wishes of Lincoln County officials.

Mr Norman is something of a legend in the county: the community gymnasium proposed as the only new voting site is named after him – “I also have a road named after me,” he said – and there is two years ago, he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican because he said it had become too difficult to get elected as a Democrat. In an interview, he dismissed the idea that black voters would be discriminated against by a grouping. He noted that in all but one precinct, white voters outnumber black voters.

“So if we remove someone, I’m afraid we’ll remove the blank vote,” he said. “But it’s not our intention, to suppress all voting.”

Mr. Norman said that in recent elections, a majority of participants voted early at a centralized location in Lincolnton. He also described a litany of problems with the current system: Three polling places are about two and a half miles apart. Some facilities are outdated. Consolidation, he says, will require less equipment. “We only have to use about half of the voting machines,” he said.

But opponents, black and white, expressed more concern for the convenience of voters than that of poll workers and poll workers.

Racy Smith, 56, an antique and curio shop owner in Lincolnton, said it seemed “ridiculous” to close rural polling places in a county with limited public transportation. “My 86-year-old mother can still drive,” said Mr. Smith, who is white, “but there are so many who are not so active living in the county.”

Rev. Denise Freeman, a former school board member and activist leading the fight against consolidation, expressed skepticism about the board’s true motivation. “I think it’s the good old boys flexing their muscles for more power and more control,” she said.

On Thursday, Ms. Freeman toured some of the more remote areas of the county, a few miles from the J. Strom Thurmond Reservoir, named for the Republican senator known as a segregationist but who ended up voting to reauthorize the vote. Rights Act.

Ms. Freeman spoke about her role in the other major racially charged issue that has rocked the county in recent decades: an allegation in the early 1990s that black children were asked to sit at the rear of a school bus by a driver.

Black parents have discussed keeping their children out of school. Ms. Freeman has spoken out about this issue and other perceived injustices, earning her share of haters.

Eventually, she says, an outside group came in to broker some sort of peace: the Department of Justice.

Three decades later, Lincoln County residents will most likely have to settle their disagreement over polling places on their own. On Tuesday, Ms Bolton’s office was vetting hundreds of protest petitions from voters in two constituencies. Under Georgian law, these two polling stations must remain open if the petitioners represent 20% or more of the total number of voters in each constituency.

But board member Jim Allen doesn’t believe the plan is dead. Some form of consolidation, he said, could eventually be considered.

Michael Wines contributed report.

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