The two notices were published in a local paper on Aug. 9, but no one could quite make sense of them. In one, Georgia’s Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration declared it would hold public meetings on Aug. 16 and 17 “to discuss Precinct Consolidation.” In the other, the board clarified that it planned to close seven of the nine polling places in the county. It announced a meeting on Aug. 24 “to consider this proposal,” but failed to specify a date or time. The notice added that the closures “shall become effective” on Aug. 24—indicating that the period of consideration was already over, and the decision to shutter the polls had already been made. For decades, Randolph County—a majority-black jurisdiction with a history of racist voter suppression—could not unilaterally alter its voting rules. It was covered under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, compelling the county to obtain federal permission, or “preclearance,” before changing its election procedures. In 2013, however, the Supreme Court kneecapped Section 5, effectively abolishing preclearance. The result has been a dramatic escalation of voter suppression across the country, a trend that’s vividly illustrated by the direct assault on the franchise in Georgia.
From its passage in 1965 to its death in 2013, preclearance was widely considered the crown jewel of the American civil rights movement. The law identified states and counties in which white officials had historically attempted to disenfranchise blacks. (Fifteen states, including most of the South, were covered in whole or in part.) It then required these “covered” jurisdictions to prove to the Department of Justice that any new elections law did not have the purpose or effect of burdening minority votes. If the attorney general objected to a proposal, the jurisdiction could instead seek approval from a three-judge panel of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia. A covered jurisdiction could also bypass the attorney general and go directly to federal court to win approval.
Preclearance worked, and it remained critical even after the South abandoned its most overt methods of voter suppression. Between 1982 and 2013, Section 5 stopped more than 1,000discriminatory voting changes; in 2012 alone, the Department of Justice used it to block 17 laws. But a year later, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court’s five conservative justices concluded that preclearance had run its course and struck down the “coverage formula” that Congress used to select covered jurisdictions. As a result, the federal government lost its authority to stop voter suppression before it happened.
The states took note. Hours after the Supreme Court handed down its decision, Texas officials announced they would implement a draconian voter ID law that had been blocked under Section 5. Days later, the North Carolina legislature requested data on voting preferences by race. It used the information to create a “monster” voter suppression law that, in the words of a federal appeals court, seemed to “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” (The court struck down the law, holding that it had a disparate impact on black voters and was passed with discriminatory intent.) In the five years since, previously covered jurisdictions have passed scores of laws cracking down on the right to vote. In addition to stringent voter ID laws, states have engaged in mass voter purges and extreme racial gerrymandering. They have also shuttered hundreds of polling places and slashed early voting.