When election officials in Randolph County, Georgia engaged in the routine practice of election administration, they probably didn’t anticipate a campaign of fearmongering littered with falsehoods to be waged against them.
Randolph County is a rural county with about 4300 registered voters spread over nine precincts. About 55% of registered voters are African-American. Most of the voters—about 60%—are concentrated in just two precincts. Those precincts are 63% African-American, and coincidentally 63% of voters in those two precincts preferred Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election.
There are seven other precincts spread around the county, but they are smaller, and in some cases much smaller. One of those precincts, for instance, has just 73 registered voters.
Keeping polling places open on Election Day can be costly. Voters increasingly vote before Election Day, casting absentee ballots or participating in early voting. Many don’t vote at all. Election officials also noted that these polling places require costly upgrades to make them compliant with disability access laws. They proposed closing these seven of the least-used districts.
Before 2013, election changes like these would have needed prior approval from the Department of Justice under the Voting Rights Act. The Supreme Court in 2013 held that “things have changed” in the South, and that seeking prior approval was no longer needed. Critics of the Supreme Court’s decision have hastily pointed to this episode as demonstration that things haven’t changed and that voter suppression pervasively rears its ugly head in the South. The facts show otherwise.
The American Civil Liberties Union began a public relations campaign demonizing county officials. It led with sinister charges” “7 of 9 precincts” or “75% of polling places” would be closed. “Precincts with 40% of the county’s voters” sounds much less dire, even if that’s more truthful.
The ACLU then claimed that these were racially motivated closings, noting that the county’s population is a majority African-American. But that, too, is a misleading charge. The seven precincts that will close are mostly white and just 42% African-American. Those precincts supported Donald Trump in 2016 with 55% of the vote.
If this is a sinister plot by white officials to suppress African-American voters, it’s the most incompetent plan one could develop. The precincts that will close disproportionately affect white voters and Republicans.
Do the closures affect African-Americans? Certainly. They also affect white & Hispanic voters. But claims of "suppression" suggest that election officials targeted African-Americans, a tough claim to make given that white voters face the brunt of the closures.
Individual precinct closures may disproportionately affect African-Americans. Consider the proposed closure of one precinct with 318 registered voters there, 96% African-American. Then again, we can pick out other precincts, too. There’s one precinct that's 89% white that will close (just 73 registered voters); another that's 83% white will close (just 103 voters).
These facts didn’t stop the ACLU from cherry-picking the 318-voter precinct. They found an uncritical media eager to help spread the misinformation. The Associated Press repeated a series of allegations levied by the ACLU against Randolph County election officials, reading more like a press release than journalism.
This isn’t to say that Randolph County election officials did a very good job. They proposed shuttering these polling places weeks before a statewide general election, and these sites had been used just weeks earlier in the primary election. A longer lead time with better communication to the public might have prevented the fallout.
It might be the case that some voters do have a harder time getting to the polls, or that some voters have to switch to early voting or absentee voting. Those are difficult tradeoffs every election administrator must face, Randolph County included. One hopes they’ve thought through this process more carefully than their action plan suggests.
But administrative mistakes hardly rise to the level of voter suppression, the conscious and deliberate effort to prevent African-American voters from participating in the political process.
That said, the right result was reached--given the lack of information and late notice, it was a welcome decision when the county opted not to close polling locations this fall.
That said, it's worth emphasizing that the political process worked well--no litigation, no order from a judge. Indeed, even in the absence of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, a rural county's poll closures became national news. Perhaps for the incorrect hyperbolic reasons described above--but a non-judicial solution nonetheless.
In these anxious political times, fearmongering seems to be the weapon of choice among partisans. But careful attention to detail reveals that the allegations of nefarious plots in Randolph County appear to be no more than less than ideal choices by government officials acting in good faith. Let’s hope that the rhetoric cools ahead of Georgia’s 2018 election.