A Win in the Battle to Vote in Georgia
Aug 24, 2018
Joyce Barlow has lived in southwestern Georgia, where she owns a private home-care business, for nearly forty years. This spring, Barlow decided to run to represent Georgia’s Hundred and Fifty-first District, which encompasses nine of the poorest counties in the state, including Randolph, in the state House of Representatives. Sixty per cent of Randolph County’s seven thousand residents are African-American, as is Barlow. The district has been represented since 1983 by Gerald Greene, a Republican and a former school teacher, who is white. Both Barlow and Greene publicly opposed a recent proposal, voted down by the Board of Elections on Friday morning, to close seven of the nine voting precincts in Randolph County.
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 used to require federal oversight when certain counties or states, including Georgia, wanted to close polling places. But that provision was struck down by the Supreme Court in 2013. “The conditions that originally justified these measures no longer characterize voting in the covered jurisdictions,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Court’s decision. The Randolph County proposal was pushed by a consultant named Mike Malone, who was hired as a temporary elections supervisor after the abrupt departure of the previous elections superintendent. Malone argued that the sites recommended for closure were not compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and also noted mold and electrical problems. Voting-rights activists have argued that a pattern has emerged during the Trump Presidency of using the regulations required by the A.D.A. as an excuse to shut down polling locations in majority-minority areas. According to the A.C.L.U. of Georgia, one of the polling locations proposed for closure in Randolph County serves a surrounding population that’s more than ninety-five-per-cent black.
On Friday morning, the local Board of Elections held a five-minute meeting to make a decision; because of the elections supervisor’s recent departure, the Board currently consists of two people. Both voted to dismiss the proposal. Barlow told me afterward, “I’m sure this was politically based. We mounted the forces to stop it. We were at every meeting. We rallied the people. We came in and spoke. We considered launching a protest march. Every step of the way, I’ve been involved.”
Greene, too, was pleased with the result, he told me, though he had a different reading of what had happened. “I gave my opinion at the first meeting,” he said. “I told them I thought this was not the time. It’s just not feasible for being so close to an election.” But he thought the idea never had anything to do with politics or election tampering. “Oh, no,” he told me, “they weren’t targeting certain voters. I’d never believe that.” He added, naming neighboring counties, “Miller County only has one polling place. Quitman County is down to two polling places. Clay County is down to one or two. Early County has closed a lot of them—nobody said anything there. It’s just a coincidence this time that the consolidation effort comes so close to an election. It’s been blown out of proportion.”
The attention that the proposal received is likely related, in part, to Georgia’s tightly contested and high-profile gubernatorial race, between the former House minority leader, Stacey Abrams, who is black and a Democrat, and Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who is white and a Republican. (“Efforts to suppress the vote & depress voter turnout are alive & well in Georgia,” Abrams wrote, on Twitter, of the Randolph County proposal.) Hillary Clinton received fifty-five per cent of Randolph County’s vote in the 2016 Presidential election, and the majority of the county’s voters are very likely to vote for Abrams as well, possibly in even higher numbers. The Congressional Black Caucus wrote a letter to Randolph County officials calling the proposal “a deliberate effort to disenfranchise an emerging and engaged demographic.” The A.C.L.U.’s legal director in Georgia claimed that some voters without cars would be forced to walk more than three hours to vote if their current voting precincts were shut down. “It’s better to keep the locations like they are, especially for the elderly,” Lester Harmon, a seventy-six-year-old retired garbage-bag-manufacturing worker, told me. “My mom is ninety-nine years old, and right now I only have to take her a half mile to the polls. If they shut them down, I'd have to go twenty.”
Greene disputed the notion that the polling locations proposed for closure were primarily serving black voters. (According to figures sent to me by Bobby Jenkins, the chair of the Randolph County Democratic Party, five of the seven locations are used mostly by white voters.) “These are my voters,” Greene said. “I represent every one of them. And I hate to see us branded as a racist county after all the work and all the things that’s been done to be inclusive here.” He mentioned, as evidence of inclusion, the district’s integrated schools and local government. “All this attention bothers me. I don’t like the outside agitation that brands us as racist. I’m glad the A.C.L.U. and the N.A.A.C.P. came down to speak out about the proposal. But I don’t want to be branded racist, or as a place that suppresses the vote.”
George Hooks, a Democratic state senator representing nearby Sumter County, took a similar view. Hooks, who is white, told me that it’s important “to reduce the number of costly little-bitty precincts in small counties. I’ve been through it in Sumter,” he said. Like Greene, he thought the timing was “the greatest mistake with this whole thing.” He added, “I wouldn’t read politics into it, necessarily. I think it was just stupidity on somebody’s part. There’s plenty of that to go around.”
On Wednesday, Mike Malone, the consultant, was fired by the attorney for Randolph County, Tommy Coleman. Afterward, Coleman told the Atlanta Journal and Constitution, “He’s certainly done more than enough. The county is distressed because of the position they’ve found themselves in.” According to the Randolph County elections-board chair, Scott Peavy, the Secretary of State’s office recommended the hiring of Malone in April. Complicating matters, Malone reportedly donated two hundred and fifty dollars to Secretary of State Kemp’s campaign, adding to the appearance of partisan maneuvering. On Friday morning, Kemp, on Twitter, described the proposal as a “plan to close GOP precincts in Randolph County, which is under Democratic rule,” and referred to himself as “the first to publicly oppose” it. He added, “Today, the Board of Elections - who are empowered to make these decisions - finally did the right thing and rejected” the proposal. His office did not immediately return a call for comment. Malone could not be reached.
Barlow told me that, moving forward into the fall, she would “stay vigilant.” She added, “We’re going to continue to get people out to vote or use absentee ballots. We’ll make sure people are talking to their friends, family, church—wherever. This will not go away easily. This has rallied people. It may have been intended to suppress the vote and disenfranchise, but it’s backfired and done the opposite. People will be getting out to vote.” Lester Harmon, the retiree, told me, “I saw it coming, after that big crowd came here. I knew they’d change their minds. Now I think you’ll see more of us getting out to vote for that lady in Atlanta, Abrams.”