Black Voters Fight to Count in Georgia

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S1: Over the last five years, Mark Niecy has watched his home state of Georgia close one polling precinct after another.

S2: Last fall, we published an article showing that 214 precincts had closed in Georgia from 2012 to 2018.

S3: Mark works at the Atlanta Journal Constitution and that’s a pretty significant number. It’s 8 percent of the state’s total.

S4: Georgia’s got more counties than any other state in the country except Texas.

S5: Some of these places are home to just a few thousand people like Clay County. It’s on the border with Alabama.

S6: There were previously five precincts. Up until 2015. And without much controversy, they were closed down and combined into one full voting location for the entire county.

S5: Well, that so five precincts down to one.

S6: That’s right. It’s a place that doesn’t have much money. Doesn’t have much tax. Base and precinct closings are often a ready way for elected officials to save money.

S7: When budget cuts come watching as these precincts shut down, it mostly left Mark with questions.

S6: We knew that these precincts had closed, but we didn’t know how much it mattered. You know where people voting anyway or not.

S5: Last week, Mark’s reporting revealed an answer.

S1: Tens of thousands of voters didn’t show up at the polls in 2013 simply because of distance. And some of these counties people have been voting in volunteer firehouses. That looks more like aluminum sheds by the side of the highway. But at least voters could get to them. I was struck by one official you talked to, I believe in Clay County, who is like, well, we can’t carry you into the voting booth. You have to. You have to come to us. She was really making the point that, well, that’s the breaks. Right.

S2: And I hear that a lot from people who comment online. And people have sent me e-mails in response to this reporting. They say, well, isn’t it the voter’s responsibility to vote? Shouldn’t they get to the polls?

S8: You know, in Clay County, a lot of them work in a chicken factory and they work late shifts. They all work overnight shifts. They don’t have transportation. They carpool to get to their jobs.

S2: And then to ask that carpool to drive another 15 miles or 10 miles or whatever it is to get to their voting place can be really difficult, even if it is the voter’s responsibility.

S8: People vote less when they have less access to polling places.

S7: Today on the show is getting to the polls a right or a responsibility? In Georgia, more and more people may be registering to vote, but Mark says it’s worth paying attention to who can actually get to the polls. I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next. Stick with us.

S1: To understand how voter turnout changed over the last few years, Mark Nixie and his reporting colleague Nick Team started out with voter maps. They plotted out where voters lived and where they voted. Then they counted up how many voters actually cast a ballot. Eventually, they concluded that between fifty four thousand and eighty five thousand voters were likely prevented from voting in the 2010 general election. And black voters were 20 percent more likely than white voters to miss the election.

S3: Black voter turnout was reduced more than white voter turnout because of the increase and distance to their voting place.

S1: So there was definitely a racial component here. Yes, that’s right. In some ways, what you found, it seems really intuitive. Like the farther you are from a polling place, the less likely you are to vote. Why did you feel like you needed to prove it?

S9: Because you can say that polling places closed. And then the other side of that is election officials argue that it doesn’t matter, that there are many ways to cast a ballot in Georgia. Georgia has three weeks of in-person early voting. It has no excuse. Absentee voting turnout is at record highs. Registration is record at record highs.

S10: And what I hear in my job all the time is people saying there is no problem. Look at all this great participation in elections. And I agree, it is great that people are participating in elections. But to argue that precinct closures don’t have an impact seemed like a question that was worth answering. Do precinct closures have an impact? And this reporting showed that it did. Fifty four thousand eighty five thousand people just in the November twenty eighteen election. You know, I’ve been covering voting rights for more than two years now. And I kind of had this idea that the big battles were during the civil rights movement in the 60s and that a lot of this was settled in the past. And now it’s just smaller battles. But I no longer think that’s the case. I think all of these disputes are alive and well, just as they have been for decades. And I don’t think anything is settled.

S1: Part of the reason so many polling places have closed in Georgia over the last few years is because federal law has changed. Georgia’s counties used to be overseen by the Department of Justice. They couldn’t just shut down polling places without permission. That was all part of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But recently, the Supreme Court overturned the section of the law. It’s interesting because back in 2013, when the Supreme Court made this decision that overturned parts of the Voting Rights Act, part of what they said was, well, we just don’t have any proof that having these protections in place is doing anything that if these protections went away, there would be any change in how people voted based on race. Show us the evidence. It seems like you’ve done that.

S10: Yes.

S9: And that’s what Donald Verrilli, former solicitor general, told us in our reporting for this article is he said this is the evidence that the Supreme Court said was lacking. The Supreme Court said there isn’t good evidence of these racial disparities existing as a result of a lack of federal oversight of elections. Well, this reporting shows that not only are voters of all races affected by increased distance to their polls, but African-American voters are more effective than white voters.

S10: They are more likely to live farther from their polls and therefore more likely to be discouraged from casting a ballot.

S1: I’m sort of curious, after doing all this reporting, whether you would call closing these polling places racist.

S10: I don’t think that the county election officials making these decisions are doing them because they’re sitting down and saying that black voters shouldn’t be able to vote or that it will specifically help one political party or one candidate over another. They have many pressures, budgetary pressures. But structurally, if you want to talk about structural racism, I think that’s a more fair discussion to have because there is a racial impact and it does affect one race more than the other.

S1: So how did how did things change in 2013 after the Supreme Court made this decision? You see that it wasn’t intentional. Like people getting together and saying, let’s exclude black voters, but that in the end, that was the effect. So. What was able to happen at the local level, at the county level, at the state level? That was different. That couldn’t happen before.

S3: It’s hard to give county election officials to draw a clear line to the Supreme Court decision because some of them are thinking about that.

S11: Right. But most of them are thinking about much more mundane and local level decisions.

S9: Usually it’s in the context of a vote. There was this long, difficult legal process. We had to hire lawyers. We had to go to the federal government to get approval for things that they the local election officials thought made sense. Now they’re just thinking, oh, what do I have to do to close a precinct?

S3: All I have to do is publish a public notice in a newspaper and have a public meeting and then have a vote. OK, that’s a lot easier. You know, I don’t think they’re thinking about before I couldn’t. Now I can. They’re thinking now I can.

S12: When you talk to local officials, they talk a lot about the ways that voting rights are expanding in Georgia. They talk about the fact that there are more people on the voting rolls than ever. They talk about how there’s automatic registration when you get a driver’s license. I wonder why that isn’t a legitimate defense.

S3: Well, it’s not a legitimate defense because what we looked at here in this reporting is the impact of precinct closures on Election Day turnout. We accounted for early voting in this report and we looked at solely at the impact of recent closures and relocations on. Turnout, and what we found is that it has dropped significantly since 2012. The period we looked at. So, yes, it’s great that more people are voting early, but that doesn’t eliminate the fact that people are not voting at the same time because of these changes in access to the ballot.

S12: You know, part of what the Supreme Court did when they overturned these parts of the Voting Rights Act is that they basically pushed decisions back on Congress. They said Congress needs to fix this. They need to get involved. We just saw the House pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act. And of course, we don’t know if it’s going to get anywhere in the Senate. But I wonder if you’ve looked at this new law and whether it would have any impact on these counties in Georgia that you looked at.

S3: Yes. Well, the Voting Rights Advancement Act is intended to reactivate the federal permission requirement for voting changes. So if this legislation were to pass, then many states and counties would have to ask for federal. They call it pre-clearance, basically approval of changes such as precinct closures. So if it were to pass, it would have a big impact. It would put things back to the way they were before the Supreme Court’s decision.

S12: It’s funny because I looked back at when the original Voting Rights Act was passed and it took so much to get that first piece of legislation passed. It was passed in the wake of Bloody Sunday, which was the march in Selma where people were marching to demonstrate about their voting rights. And of course, it devolved. And a week later, the president made an announcement like, we need to fix this.

S13: We must not refuse to protect the right of every American to vote and every election that he may desire to participate in.

S12: And it just took so much effort. And it made me think about the legislation we’re looking at now and how it’s stuck and how much work it would potentially take to get legislation like that passed.

S3: Right. And politically, I think it’s very difficult because it is so partisan. You know, if your position is that federal oversight of elections is bad, I don’t think a politician who believes that is going to change that belief, even when it’s demonstrated that there is a negative impact of not having the oversight that was there six years ago.

S1: When is Georgia’s next big election?

S3: Georgia’s next big election is March 24th. That’s the presidential primary. I expect it to be a very important and why highly watched election across the country. Georgia is the only state in the country with a primary date on March 24th. Enter Iowa and New Hampshire and some other states will have gone before Georgia, including some big ones like California and other states will come after. And who knows what the field of candidates will look like on March 24th. But Georgia is such a close state politically where Democrats and Republicans are very evenly divided. Georgia was and has been a Republican leaning state for many years now. But Democrats have slowly been making inroads and it’s getting closer and closer and closer. There have been more than three hundred fifty two thousand new voters in Georgia since last year’s election.

S1: Three hundred and fifty thousand people have been registered in the last year. That’s right. That seems huge.

S3: And about three hundred fifty thousand the year before that, too many of those new registrants are signing up to vote when they get their driver’s licenses through Georgia’s automatic voter registration. And so many people are moving into Georgia and when they get their driver’s license, unless you check a box saying you do not want to be registered to vote, you will be registered to vote.

S7: There are so many things happening in Georgia. When it comes to voting rights, it’s hard to keep them all in your head, not just the Supreme Court ruling and the polling place closures. There have been purges of the voting rolls themselves. Hundreds of thousands of people were scheduled to have their registrations deleted just last night. Others have had their registrations put on hold after government documents didn’t match up. But there’s also been this expansion in early voting and a 2016 administrative change that paved the way for that automatic voter registration.

S8: It’s like so many things. When you talk about structural problems, you pass a law and it might have intended an unintended consequences, such as decreased turnout or disparate racial impacts. And I feel like at the local level, sometimes awareness of the broader impact is lacking.

S2: All of these individual issues over how elections should be managed are each a separate debate.

S6: They’re fought in courts. They’re fought in the legislature. They’re fought among activists and among people just talking among themselves at the bus stop. And it all adds up to this big thing we call voting rights struggles.

S14: Right. But really, it’s a complicated and nuanced process of deciding how elections should be handled and how to make sure they’re fair.

S5: Mark Niecy, thank you so much for joining me. Sure thing. Thanks for having me. Mark Niecy is a reporter with the Atlanta Journal Constitution, and that’s the show. What next is produced by Mary Wilson? Jason de Leon, Danielle Hewitt and Maura Silvers.

S7: Tell me what you think of the show. Go on Twitter. Track me down. I’m at Mary’s desk. What you want to hear? You can just tweeted at me. Thanks for listening. I’m Mary Harris. I will talk to you tomorrow.