By Mark Niesse
ONLY IN THE AJC VOTING
CUTHBERT — In the heat of last year’s election, local voters cheered when they defeated a plan to close almost every precinct in a majority African American county in rural Georgia.
They thought they had won a victory for voting rights. Now they’re not so sure.
Election officials in Randolph County are again trying to shut down voting locations to save tax money, but this time they’re targeting a few run-down, heavily white precincts.
Calling it a compromise, this year’s closure plan quieted much of the acrimony from last year and is poised for final approval by the county elections board on Monday. But advocates for voting rights say the loss of precincts will make it more difficult for voters to cast a ballot.
The debate over precinct consolidation in this lightly populated, low-income county generally breaks down along racial lines. White voters say they’re willing to sacrifice easy access in the name of cost savings. Black voters oppose the erosion of access to the polls after a long history of battles against voter suppression — even if most of those losing out this time are white.
African American voters say they fear that precinct closures will come to their neighborhood precincts next.
“It’s already a poor county, and now we’re losing a right and being told where we can vote?” asked Maggie Cooper, an African American voter shopping at the Piggly Wiggly in Cuthbert. “It reduces voting rights.”
Others said it makes sense to save taxpayer money by closing locations that aren’t accessible to voters with disabilities and have low turnout anyway.
“People can get to the polls if they want to. They can find a way,” said Barbara Sealy, a retired librarian who is white.
“Times are tougher than they used to be. Some of us just don’t see the need of paying to have that many precincts for that few people.”
National media swarmed to Randolph County, about 25 miles from the Alabama border, when news spread last fall about a proposal to shutter seven of the county’s nine precincts just weeks before November’s election for governor between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.
Opponents of the plan said it was an attempt to disenfranchise voters who were likely to support Abrams, and they accused Kemp, who was secretary of state at the time, of encouraging the effort to eliminate precincts.
Kemp rejected the allegations and urged Randolph County not to consolidate precincts.
Faced with overwhelming opposition to the proposal pitched by an elections consultant, the county’s election board quickly voted to allow all precincts to remain open.
The triumph appears to be temporary.
Lacking money to upgrade precincts so they’re accessible to voters with disabilities, local election officials intend to close three voting locations, housed in flimsy aluminum buildings that serve as volunteer fire stations near cornfields and farms. One of the three precincts has 73 registered active voters.
The precincts set for closure have the fewest numbers of African American voters in the county. In all, 447 white voters and 54 black voters would be reassigned to other precincts. Six precincts would remain open.
A handful of people spoke up at public meetings, and election officials listened to their concerns when deciding which precincts to close, said Tommy Coleman, the county’s attorney.
“When you have a compromise, nobody’s completely happy, I suppose, but people seemed to accept it,” said Coleman, who is white. “It took on a life of its own last year. We don’t live in a very thoughtful time, I’m afraid.”
Mary Kearney, a retired educator and member of the county’s Democratic Party committee, said she remains concerned that the precinct closings will disproportionately affect African American voters, though most of the voters in the precincts being closed are white.
“It’s more or less the black people who are hurting because the white people will find a way to get to the polls,” said Kearney, who is black. “This is not right and it’s not fair. Everybody should be served.”
The decision to close precincts is made by county governments, and there’s no oversight since the U.S.
Supreme Court in 2013 removed requirements under the Voting Rights Act for some local governments to first obtain federal clearance.
County election officials closed 214 precincts across Georgia between 2012 and 2018, according to an analysis The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted last year.
Though the Secretary of State’s Office has no control over precinct closures, it can give advice. State Elections Director Chris Harvey said he told Randolph County’s elections administrator to be careful to ensure closures were justified before moving forward.
The county estimates that the precinct closures will save the county about $4,500 per election. By comparison, it could cost tens of thousands of dollars to make precincts accessible to people with disabilities by adding access ramps, air conditioning and other accommodations.
The county, which spent $85,000 on elections last year and is short on money this year, declined to fund a study to evaluate the potential repair costs.
To Stacie Stewart, the co-owner of The Back Porch restaurant in Shellman, closing little-used precincts just makes financial sense. Stewart, who is white, is one of the 109 voters assigned to the 4th District precinct that’s set for closure. She said voters can always cast ballots by mail or vote early.
“They should close them all and have just two precincts open, and not waste all that money,” Stewart said.
“If I don’t vote there, I’ll vote somewhere else.”
Another voter, Johnny Perryman, said if voting places have to be closed, it would be better not to base the decision on race. Precincts in mostly white areas and mostly black areas should both be closed so that neither population suffers more than the other, said Perryman, a retired investigator who is black.
“Either way, it’s going to come back next year or the year after,” Perryman said.
The next time the government wants to close precincts, he fears majority black areas will be hit hardest — just like during last year’s failed attempt.