In June, the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision disarmed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, freeing nine states – mostly in the South – from having to submit election procedure changes for the Justice Department’s approval. The vast majority of voting laws that the department objected to as discriminatory came from towns and counties, rather than the state level. Since the ruling, such localities have seen both quiet changes to election code and also deep uncertainties among civil rights advocates who long relied on this key provision of the Voting Rights Act. The state of Georgia alone offers many examples. The city of Athens, for instance, is considering a proposal to eliminate nearly half of its 24 polling sites in favor of creating two early voting centers – both located inside police stations. Madelyn Clare Powell, a longtime civil rights activist in Athens, worries that some voters cannot regard police stations as neutral territory. “There is a major intimidation factor here – these police stations are seen by some in the community as hostile territory,” says Powell, citing historical tension between white police forces and minority communities in the region. Local activists also fear that the poll closures disproportionally impact neighborhoods with higher shares of minorities and college students, requiring three-hour bus rides for some public-transit dependent voters.
“With the popularity of advance voting, election day lines have subsided and we can serve voters with fewer election day polling places,” says Gail Schrader, Athens’ Supervisor of Elections and Voter Registration. Schrader also notes that police stations are among the few spaces that could accommodate early voting sites for weeks at a time, and that the proposal could annually save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.
Several miles from Athens, heavily rural Greene County implemented a redistricting plan directly following the Shelby ruling. The Justice Department, which blocked another redistricting plan in the same county just last year, had been reviewing the new plan before the Supreme Court ruling, and the ACLU had strongly denounced the plan as discriminatory. In August, the new districts stirred a small demonstration in the town of Greensboro.
Adjacent to Greene County is Morgan County, which in July considered a proposal to eliminate over half of its polling sites. City Councilman Michael Naples believed the plan could disenfranchise low-income, minority voters who lack access to automobiles. “Although [Section 5] preclearance is no longer a requisite, you gentlemen and ladies are still required to have a clear conscience relative to any decisions you make relative to voting,” Naples told the Board of Elections in a July meeting. The county ultimately voted to eliminate just over a third of polling sites.