A Georgia County Is Trying to Keep Black Voters From the Polls—and Advocates Say It’s a Sign of What’s to Come (Updated)

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Commentary Voting Shmoting

A Georgia County Is Trying to Keep Black Voters From the Polls—and Advocates Say It’s a Sign of What’s to Come (Updated)

Imani Gandy

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter, says we can't get caught up in individual stories—we have to look at the bigger picture.

UPDATE, August 24, 10:30 a.m.: On Friday, Randolph County voted to keep all nine of its polling places open.

UPDATE, August 23, 6:24 p.m.: On Thursday, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported that Randolph County Attorney Tommy Coleman fired the consultant who proposed closing the polling places, Mike Malone, in a letter dated August 22. Coleman told the Journal-Constitution that the proposal is unlikely to be successful.

Republicans presumably thought they were being crafty when they announced that they were eliminating more than 75 percent of the polling places in majority-Black Randolph County, Georgia, citing concerns about compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA).

“Your polling places are not ADA-compliant. Period,” Mike Malone, a consultant hired by the Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration said at a crowded elections board meeting last Thursday, according to Greg Bluestein of the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. The meeting was packed with voters who were there to express their disapproval about the plan.

Randolph County, where one-third of the residents live below the poverty line and more than 60 percent of the population is Black, only has nine polling places to begin with. The elections board’s proposal would eliminate seven of those nine polling places, including a precinct where more than 95 percent of the voters are Black.

The polling places were open during the May primaries and July runoff election earlier this year. So the timing of the closures—on the eve of a momentous general election that could send Stacey Abrams to the governor’s mansion, cementing her place in history as the first Black woman governor of any state in the country—is suspect, to say the least.

Stacey Abrams has vocally opposed the closures.

“Located in the southwest region of the state, Randolph’s poverty rate is far north of the national average. The area is mostly rural, predominantly Black, and frequently forgotten,” she wrote in an essay published on Medium Sunday.

“Last week, the Randolph County Board of Elections proposed closing seven of its nine polling locations before November. Without public transportation, some residents would be forced to walk over three hours to exercise their constitutional right to vote,” she continued.

“This is unacceptable, but we’ve seen these voter suppression tactics before.”

Abrams is right. Such voter suppression tactics were common until the Voting Rights Act was enacted in 1965, which placed Georgia on the ignominious list of so-called preclearance states. Due to their history of racism and voter suppression, these states would be required to clear any major changes to their voting rights laws with the Department of Justice before implementing them.

But in 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court decimated the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, a decision that ages more poorly with each passing year as states across the country have rushed to pass oppressive voter identification laws, to purge voters from the rolls, and to otherwise make it difficult for primarily Black and brown, reliably Democratic, voters to cast their ballot. The recent efforts in Randolph County are a clear sign that voter suppression is still pernicious—and it could have a real, and devastating, effect on the integrity of U.S. elections.

Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, Abrams’ Republican challenger, also says that he opposes the poll closures. But his relationship to Mike Malone—the consultant who recommended the closures—raises questions about his sincerity, as do Kemp’s secretary of state policies over the last eight years.

At two “courtesy meetings” last week, Malone suggested that Secretary of State Kemp’s own actions were related to the closures, according to Greg Bluestein. “Consolidation has come highly recommended by the Secretary of State and is already being adopted by several counties and is being seriously considered and being worked on by many more,” Malone said.

In addition, Kemp has spent the last eight years launching criminal investigations against groups dedicated to registering Asian American and Black voters.

According to a 2015 report in the the New Republic, in 2010, Kemp sent investigators to Brooks County to interrogate Black residents after a massive voter engagement campaign led to the county electing a majority-Black school board. A dozen voting rights activists were arrested and charged with felony voter fraud, including three members of the school board who were stripped of their positions in the wake of the accusations. Four years later, each of the activists was acquitted of charges.

In September 2014, after concluding a nearly two-and-a-half-year investigation into the Asian American Legal Advocacy Center—which had been working to register newly naturalized immigrants—and finding no violations, Kemp launched a voter fraud investigation into the New Georgia Project, an initiative founded by Stacey Abrams that had garnered some attention for its efforts to register 120,000 voters of color before the 2014 midterms. Kemp closed the investigation in September 2017, after clearing the organization of wrongdoing in February 2017. Of 87,000 voter registration forms, only 53 were found to have been fraudulent. That’s a whopping .061 percent—hardly a voter fraud epidemic.

Two months prior to launching that investigation, according to the New Republic, Kemp gave a speech to Republicans in Gwinnett County, Georgia, in which he warned that Democrats were registering voters of color and that the effort could lead to Democratic wins: “[Y]ou know the Democrats are working hard, and all these stories about them, you know, registering all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “If they can do that, they can win these elections in November.”

With a record like that, it’s easy to see why voting rights activists aren’t buying what Kemp is selling.

LaTosha Brown, co-founder of Black Voters Matter—a grassroots organization led primarily by Black women dedicated to building sustainable political power in Black communities—told me during a phone interview that “the fox is in the henhouse,” referring to Kemp.

Brown doesn’t believe Kemp when he says that he opposes the closures, and she’s not buying the ADA compliance excuse either.

“Why shouldn’t that have been a first priority, to make sure that people with disabilities and the elderly can get access to all of this? The state should have been on top of this …. Why all of a sudden is ADA compliance an issue in an election year? It’s not like election years change. We know when they’re going to happen. Did the secretary of state office not see this coming? The timing points toward something a little more sinister,” Brown said.

“Any way you look at it, it’s problematic that we’re at this point,” Brown continued. “My grandfather said, ‘If you smell a dead rat, that means that there’s one somewhere in the house.'”

As for Kemp, “of course he’s backtracking,” Brown said. “It’s in national news, and people are responding.”

Certainly, the spotlight is on Randolph County right now.

The ACLU has threatened to sue, alleging that the closure plan violates the Constitution and the Voting Rights Act, and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law—in conjunction with the Georgia Coalition for the Peoples’ Agenda, the Georgia State Conference of the NAACP, and the New Georgia Project—sent a letter of objection to the Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration explaining that the plan will burden Black voters in Randolph County. County officials are set to vote on the plan on August 24, and due to the national outcry, there’s a good chance that they will be shamed into scrapping it.

That’s good news for Randolph County. But what about the rest of the country?

Brown suggests that we can’t get caught up in isolated stories and that we need to look at the bigger picture.

“We’ve got to see Randolph County as indicative of something greater that is happening and is awry in this country, around restricting access to the ballot,” Brown says. “We’ve got to see how rural communities are isolated and decisions are made, and how—particularly communities in the South—find themselves extremely vulnerable with the stripping away” of the power of the Voting Rights Act.

Brown, a native of Selma, Alabama, co-founded Black Voters Matter with Cliff Albright. They started in Alabama doing voter empowerment work, voter registration, and voter mobilization. In the wake of Shelby County v. Holder, Brown and Albright accelerated their strategies to support communities, and to build upon existing infrastructures in Black communities.

“Our goal is to help build capacity and support the existing infrastructure in those communities, and actually be able to connect communities to each other,” Brown said. “Often times, even in those very small rural communities, they’re very isolated. That’s what we think this Randolph County is a prime example of.”

“In the South, oftentimes, there’s no investment in the states,” Brown continued. “[I]f we are to save, or create or actualize democracy in this country, then that means that all voters have to be able to have access to the ballot, have to be able to participate, have their voices heard and have their voting rights protected.”

“The people who live in those communities that care about these issues day in and day out, they’re on the front of policy change. We see that as the front line, or full civic engagement,” Brown said.

That sort of civic engagement is evident in Randolph County, where resident outcry may force Republicans to scrap their closure plan. And it’s that sort of civic engagement and grassroots organizing that may overcome Republicans’ herculean efforts to disenfranchise Black voters, not just in Randolph County, but across the formerly Confederate South.

As Brown said, “People that are not in alignment with making sure that every single person—whether it’s Republican, Democratic, Black, white, Hispanic—has equal access to the ballot, then that person is an enemy of democracy, and we’ve got to remove them. They do not deserve to serve.”