Voters came out in record numbers for the 2018 midterms, and analysts with both parties predict turnout for the 2020 election could be unprecedented. Meanwhile, civil rights groups are warning an “epidemic” of polling place closures has swept 13 states, including several southern states with deep histories of racial voter suppression. Civil rights groups say the mass shuttering of polling places could make it harder for rural voters, voters with disabilities, lower-income voters and people of color to access the ballot next year.
In the six years since the Supreme Court gutted a crucial section of the Voting Rights Act, making it easier to shut down polling places, local election officials in 13 states have closed 1,688 polling stations, according to a new report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund (LCEF). Most of the closures occurred after the 2014 midterm elections. In 2018, when midterm voter turnout reached a record high, there were 1,173 fewer polling stations in these states than there were just four years earlier.
“Our elections officials are supposed to defend and protect our democracy,” said Sean J. Young, legal director of the ACLU of Georgia, during a call with reporters this week. “Instead, many have been aggressively pushing poll closures in communities of color with phony pretexts.”
The LCEF report largely focuses on nine states and jurisdictions in six others that were covered by the “preclearance” section of the Voting Rights Act because of histories of voter discrimination, in some cases dating back to the days of Jim Crow. Until the Supreme Court threw out the preclearance section in its 2013 decision in Shelby vs. Holder, local election officials in these jurisdictions were required to notify voters of any planned poll closures well ahead of time and prove to federal overseers in the Justice Department that any voting changes would not discriminate against voters of color.
Of the 757 counties studied in the report, 39 percent have reduced the number of polling places available to voters since 2012.
The fallout of the Shelby decision was immediate. Republican lawmakers in Texas, North Carolina and other states across the country quickly moved to implement new restrictions on voting, including controversial voter ID laws, curbs on early voting, new restrictions on voter registration, purges of voter rolls and racial gerrymandering. Federal judges have since ruled no less than 10 times that major changes in Texas, North Carolina and other states intentionally discriminated against Black and Brown voters, according to the report.
Republicans said the new voting restrictions were nonpartisan efforts to shore up “election integrity” and root out voter fraud. However, claims of rampant voter fraud proved hugely overblown before evaporating completely, along with a short-lived commission to investigate the supposed problem established in 2017 by President Trump. In fact, the post-Shelby voting rights battles follow a highly partisan formula. Policies that make it harder to vote benefit Republicans, while policies that make it easier to vote benefit Democrats. Plenty of research has shown that voting restrictions disproportionally impact lower-income voters and people of color who are more likely to lean Democratic and already face frequent obstacles to voting, such as long wait times at the polls. Thanks to this partisan reality, Republican-fueled voter suppression continues nationwide.
While voter ID laws and voter-roll purges made national headlines, civil rights groups say little attention has been paid to the closing of polling locations in many of the same states. The report’s authors acknowledge that some of these closures may be benign or serve a legitimate public interest. However, others could force already disadvantaged voters to travel further and jump through more hoops in order to vote. Polling closures are particularly pernicious, civil rights groups argue, because changes are often made with little public notice, making legal intervention difficult before an election takes place. And without the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirements, it’s difficult to know whether closures will have a discriminatory impact on voters of color.
“Decisions to shutter polling places are often made quietly and without public notice, making intervention virtually impossible,” said Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference Education Fund. “And without preclearance protections, states are under no obligation to evaluate the discriminatory impacts of such closures.”
Consider Texas, where 750 polling places have been shuttered since Shelby — more than any other state in the study, according to the report. In urban areas of Dallas and Houston where people of color make up a majority of voters, local polls have been closed and replaced with centralized, countywide “vote centers.” Voters can cast their ballot at any vote center, rather than an assigned polling location, providing more flexibility. However, there are fewer places to vote, and the jury is still out as to whether the change could have a discriminatory impact,
The most common reason for a poll closure is no reason at all. In Georgia, North Carolina, Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, polling places were routinely closed without clear public notice, transparency or input from the community, according to the report. In Louisiana, polls closed after Hurricane Katrina have never reopened, forcing residents of hard-hit, majority-Black neighborhoods in New Orleans to travel further to vote. In Georgia, where 31 percent of the population is Black and 214 polling places have closed since 2012, the office of then-secretary of state Brian Kemp sent a letter encouraging counties to consolidate polling locations, according to the report. Kemp, a white Republican who in 2018 narrowly beat Democrat and voting rights advocate Stacey Abrams in a race for governor that was marred by voter suppression, spelled out in bold font that counties were no longer required to submit changes to the Justice Department for preclearance.
Then there is McLennan County, Texas, where 26 percent of voters are Latino and 15 percent are Black, according to Beth Stevens, voting rights program director at the Texas Civil Rights Project. Election officials there have closed 30 percent of 59 polling locations since the Shelby decision, telling the local press the locations did not meet accessibility standards required by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Similar reasoning was given in Randolph County, Georgia, where local officials proposed closing seven of the majority-Black county’s nine polling locations ahead of the 2018 election. Civil rights groups intervened, accusing officials of suppressing the Black vote in Kemp’s favor, and the plan was abandoned amid national controversy.
Indeed, election officials have cited the ADA as a reason for poll closures across the country, to the dismay of disabilities and civil right groups who say the ADA is being used as a smokescreen for voter suppression. The best way to comply with the ADA, they argue, is to simply bring buildings up to code with wheelchair ramps and other improvements. Young, who challenged closures in Randolph County, said civil rights attorneys are essentially playing a nationwide game of “whack-a-mole” with polling place closures. Without the Voting Rights Act preclearance protection, attorneys must file challenges as they come up, and it’s impossible to track them all.
Civil rights groups are currently pushing legislation in Congress that would restore the preclearance section of the Voting Rights Act at the federal level, but Young says the conversation must go deeper than that. When election officials use the ADA to justify closures, or simply argue that local polling places are too rundown to continue operating, they “shine a spotlight” on inherent inequalities in ballot access.
“Taxpayers should be rightfully angry when politicians fail … to eliminate four-hour-long lines on Election Day,” Young said. “We think people should be asking why wealthy people have access to better [voting] facilities than lower-income folks.”
When polling places close or change location, it can be disruptive to anyone on a schedule — particularly working people who may be juggling childcare and long hours on the job on Election Day. Does public transportation run to the new location? If not, lower-income people will be overwhelmingly affected. When we think about Election Day itself, we can see why the poll closures have a disproportionate impact on working people and people of color.
Young identified a simple step toward addressing this problem: make Election Day a federal holiday like Labor Day, giving a large chunk of the electorate the day off work. It’s not hard to imagine how this could work. The government and financial institutions would give employees the day off, encouraging other employers to do the same. For those who do work on Election Day, weekend early voting would be standard nationwide.
Such a change would cut through so much of the partisan spin around the voting rights debate, because people of all incomes and background would have plenty of time to find their polling places and cast their votes. No more long lines at rush hour; no more rushed confusion over polling locations moved at the last minute. In a country that cherishes the right to vote and considers the ballot a foundation of democracy, making Election Day a holiday sounds like common sense. If such legislation were introduced in Congress, lawmakers in both parties and the president would come under significant public pressure to pass it.
“Why aren’t politicians eager to make that easy fix?” Young said.
The answer to Young’s question can be found in that simple partisan math. When access to the ballot is restricted, a wealthier, whiter and more mobile electorate is reflected at the polls, and certain politicians benefit more than others. In the years since Shelby, we’ve learned exactly who these politicians are.