In a minutelong meeting on Friday morning, Georgia’s Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration rejected a plan to close seven of the majority-black county’s nine polling places in advance of the November election.
The board first announced its scheme to “consolidate” precincts in a local paper on Aug. 9. Five days later, the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sent the board a demand letter urging it to keep all nine polling places open, noting that their closure may violate federal civil rights law and the U.S. Constitution. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law issued a similar demand letter threatening a lawsuit. At public meetings on Aug. 16 and 17, the ACLU—along with a number of community members—protested the plan, condemning it as a flagrant attempt to suppress the vote. The situation drew nationwide outrage and criticism from both gubernatorial candidates, Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp.
Now the board has decided to stand down. In a statement released on Friday, it insisted that it was merely searching for “ways to economize” given “a decline in the county tax base.” The board insisted that it had complied with the law and only sought to keep elections “fair and efficient.” It did not explain why, exactly, it abandoned the plan. But it extolled the right to vote as “sacred,” a “fundamental American principle” for which “many generations of brave men and women have fought and died.”
Although the immediate crisis in Randolph County is over, a number of questions remain.
Although Kemp—the GOP gubernatorial candidate who currently serves as secretary of state—eventually opposed the plan, he seems to have played a behind-the-scenes role in its inception. The poll-closure scheme was devised by a consultant named Mike Malone, an associate of Kemp’s who supports his run for governor. Kemp, who has a notorious history of racial disenfranchisement, asked Malone to recommend poll closures in multiple Georgia counties, including Randolph.
At the Aug. 16 meeting, Malone acknowledged all this, informing county residents that “consolidation has come highly recommended by the secretary of state.” Yet he backtracked after the plan drew widespread resistance, insisting that “I don’t recall ever hearing anything from the secretary of state that said they recommend this.” Kemp has also denied recommending poll closures. “We haven’t advised counties” to close polls, his spokeswoman told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We think it’s a terrible idea. … The solution to a noncompliant polling place in terms of the ADA is not just to shut it down for everyone. It’s to fix it.”
Malone claimed that seven of Randolph County’s polls must be shuttered because they are not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act. (When asked why he did not attempt to identify replacement locations, Malone shot back that he was “not hired to find alternatives.”) But in response to a public records request, an attorney representing the county told HuffPost that there “is no document, report or analysis studying the handicap accessibility of polling places in Randolph County.” Malone’s ADA rationale appears to have been entirely pretextual.
Randolph County Attorney Tommy Coleman fired Malone on Wednesday, noting that “the county is distressed because of the position” he put them in. Malone received $2,235 for his services. His career as an elections consultant is almost certainly over.
In a sense, however, Malone served as a scapegoat, drawing ire away from the individual chiefly responsible for Georgia’s suppression of the black vote: Brian Kemp. It was Kemp who recommended Malone, and Kemp who encouraged him to shut down polling places. As soon as the plan blew up, Kemp distanced himself from Malone, and now seems eager to throw him under the bus. But the consultant never would have targeted Randolph County if it hadn’t been for Kemp.
Unfortunately, the heavy-handed tactics on display in Georgia continue to be deployed elsewhere. Since the Supreme Court hobbled the Voting Rights Act in 2013, states that previously required federal permission before changing their election procedures have shuttered hundreds of polling places. And as ThinkProgress’ Kira Lerner reported on Wednesday, Jeff Sessions’ Department of Justice has seized upon the pretext of ADA non-compliance to close polling placess in minority communities across the country. Randolph County was a skirmish in the war on voting rights. And though the right to vote emerged unscathed, the broader battle rages on.