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A Georgia county set off a tense debate by planning to reduce polling sites

Denise Freeman (center), a former Lincoln County Board of Education member and community activist, calls a plan to consolidate polling places in the rural Georgia county "unconscionable."
Stephen Fowler
/
Georgia Public Broadcasting
Denise Freeman (center), a former Lincoln County Board of Education member and community activist, calls a plan to consolidate polling places in the rural Georgia county "unconscionable."

Updated January 27, 2022 at 5:28 AM ET

As a half-dozen voting rights advocates filed into the Lincoln County Board of Elections to deliver a petition that temporarily halted plans to shutter polling places, the tension between them and elections director Lilvender Bolton was nearly palpable.

After spending the afternoon anxiously watching the front door for the petitions she knew were coming, going over the events that had brought national scrutiny to the question of voter access in her rural east Georgia county, Bolton gave a defiant stare as she took the thick stack of papers into her tiny office, ending the awkward handoff.

Back outside, gazing at a bank of cameras and reporters, Denise Freeman, a Lincoln County resident rallying opposition to the plan, let out a deep sigh.

"It is unconscionable that we would even have anyone to think about closing precincts in 2022," said Freeman, a Black pastor and former school board member. "It takes us back to an era that we thought that we would never have to go back to."

Hours before the petitions arrived at the door, Bolton had let out her own sigh as she considered how she had been portrayed in recent weeks.

"I would never do anything to disenfranchise anybody from voting," Bolton, who is Black, said. "People can tell you I will go over and beyond. I'll do whatever is needed."

The national spotlight in recent weeks has fallen, improbably, on Lincoln County, a "sportsman's paradise" of about 7,700 people that lies along the South Carolina border. Local election officials have proposed consolidating all seven polling places into the county's recreation complex, a single larger centralized site. The county voted 68% for former President Donald Trump last year, and less than one-third of the population is Black.

Georgia is the epicenter of the voting rights fight, so much so that President Biden chose it as the site of a major speech on voting rights this month. In the aftermath of the 2020 election, Republicans in the state approved a massive overhaul of election laws that added new restrictions on absentee voting and changed rules in the wake of false claims of fraud pushed by Trump, one of the most high-profile examples of a series of GOP-backed restrictive state voting laws passed around the country.

Into this charged atmosphere came the Lincoln County plan. Some voting advocates described it as an example of voter suppression.

But local election officials say they proposed consolidation because the county doesn't have enough resources for the current configuration and more voters are casting absentee and early ballots. They promised to provide transportation to voters who need it and said the change would let them offer Election Day voters a better site and access to more voting machines.

A Center for Public Integrity/Georgia Public Broadcasting analysis of voter rolls, polling place locations and other election data showed no more than a few hundred voters cast ballots at each polling place in the past three general elections.

According to that same analysis:

  • Around three-quarters of the county's votes were cast via early or absentee ballots in the 2020 presidential election and 58% in the 2018 midterms.
  • With the consolidated location, the median distance to travel to the polls would increase by about a mile for Black voters and nearly three miles for white voters.
  • Voters in the most rural regions of the county, though, would have farther to go. An analysis of voter records shows 75% of voters would be within eight miles of the proposed new polling site. The current polling places are all within that radius.
  • The data did not include race information for 386 voters. Precise locations for 122 voters were not available.


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    As jurisdictions around the country wrestle with how to best allocate voting resources against a backdrop of changing election laws and voter preferences, the intense concerns over Lincoln County's plans suggest many election administration decisions will be viewed through a lens of growing mistrust.

    "People just aren't taking it for granted that, you know, it's going to be done in a fair manner anymore," said Gowri Ramachandran, senior counsel for the democracy program at the nonprofit Brennan Center for Justice.

    The backlash to the proposal for a single site in Lincoln County shows it probably isn't the plan that best serves voters, said Rachel Orey, senior policy analyst for the elections project at the Bipartisan Policy Center, a think tank. Orey said that based on the BPC's calculations, Lincoln County would ideally have at least three election sites, and she recommends that every county have at least two.

    Since a 2013 Supreme Court decision eliminating key provisions of the Voting Rights Act, advocates have tracked the number of polling places in counties that previously had to seek permission for voting changes from the federal government. They warn of shrinking numbers of polling places and increasing distances voters must cover to cast ballots.

    Georgia has closed more than 10% of its polls since 2013, especially in rural Georgia. Meanwhile, the state's voter rolls have grown by more than one million people — primarily around metro Atlanta. The state has a long history of racist voting laws that target Black voters, and in recent elections, nonwhite voters have been more likely to face long lines while trying to cast ballots.

    All that means the question of how to allocate resources to serve Lincoln County's nearly 6,100 registered voters is resonating far beyond its borders. The debate has become a microcosm of the increasingly contentious and bitter national brawl over access to the ballot.

    The rural Lincoln County Board of Elections has postponed a vote to consolidate its seven polling places into a single site after voting rights groups delivered a petition to temporarily halt the plan, calling it voter suppression. Local elections officials say they lack appropriate resources to keep every poll available.
    Stephen Fowler / Georgia Public Broadcasting
    /
    Georgia Public Broadcasting
    The rural Lincoln County Board of Elections has postponed a vote to consolidate its seven polling places into a single site after voting rights groups delivered a petition to temporarily halt the plan, calling it voter suppression. Local elections officials say they lack appropriate resources to keep every poll available.

    Which communities will bear the burdens?

    Opponents of the Lincoln County consolidation plan have pointed out that Republican lawmakers in Georgia pushed through bills allowing them to reconstitute the elections boards in half a dozen counties, including Lincoln. In some of those counties, Republicans forced out Black Democrats and replaced them with Republicans.

    In Lincoln County, the composition of the five-member elections board has changed since the 2020 election — but not because of the new state laws.

    Shortly after the 2020 election, two members voluntarily resigned, said one of them, Howie Gunby. Gunby, who had been appointed by the Democratic Party, said he and his Republican counterpart had been on the board for many years and decided it was time to leave. The Board of Education, which has the right to name an elections board member, replaced its appointee around the same time.

    Amidst the turnover, the Republican-controlled county commission decided it wanted elections board members to have staggered terms. During that process, lawyers told the county commission the political parties could no longer be permitted to directly appoint elections board members; the commission now appoints three of the five members instead.

    Bolton, the elections director, said the Democratic Party appointee who stepped down was replaced by county commissioners with a candidate drawn from a list the Democratic Party provided to the county board.

    The current five-member elections board, which includes two Black Democrats, have all said they supported the polling-place consolidation plan, Bolton said.


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    Locating polling places to best serve voters is complex, experts say, and a change in the number of polling places alone isn't enough to tell you whether voters have sufficient access. It also matters which voters are affected and how. Some counties are offering vote centers that give people choices about where to go, or a better building that can accommodate more machines or is closer to public transportation.

    "What's important to focus on is how these polling place decisions affect Election Day capacity to process voters, as well as which communities will bear those burdens," said the BPC's Orey. Gunby, the former elections board member, said he still speaks frequently with Bolton, the elections director. He said he also would prefer a less dramatic reduction in polling sites.

    The changes to state law make it more difficult to predict what voters will need. Voting by absentee ballot, for example, may now be more difficult. State lawmakers made a series of changes to the deadlines and ID requirements for requesting and returning mail-in ballots.

    It's also important "not to have a knee-jerk reaction" to a polling place reduction, said David Becker, executive director and founder of the nonpartisan Center for Election Innovation & Research and a former Department of Justice senior trial attorney who oversaw voting rights enforcement in several states, including Georgia.

    Voter suppression is real, and indefensible, even if it affects only a handful of voters and wouldn't change an election outcome, Becker said. But "not everything is voter suppression, and it actually makes it more difficult to fight legitimate voter suppression when we call everything voter suppression," he said, stressing that he was speaking generally and had not studied the Lincoln County plan specifically.

    Lincoln County has no public transportation, making increased distance between voters and polling places an issue. But Bolton said many of the buildings she had used as polling places are insufficient to hold many machines or people.

    Some are as small as a studio apartment. Others are cinder-block buildings difficult to heat and cool, a problem for elderly poll workers spending a 14-hour day serving a relatively small number of voters.

    A single centralized polling place, she said, will allow her to put enough staff and up to 40 machines in the gymnasium at the county's recreation complex. That would be more than enough to handle the number of local voters, she said.

    "Well, if I don't consolidate, I need some buildings," Bolton said. "That's the reality of it, is they're not here."

    A plan delayed

    The idea to consolidate voting locations came last year, Bolton said, because of new voting equipment that took up more space, the coronavirus pandemic and the board deciding it was time for a change.

    In 2020, the county was one of many to receive a grant for election expenses from the Center for Tech and Civic Life, funded by Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg. Lincoln County got around $20,000 and Bolton said the money paid for "everything to do with the election." But the new state law prevents counties from directly seeking such private grants, creating new struggles to maintain access offered during the pandemic.

    When the election board held public meetings in September 2021, some residents expressed concerns over the distance between the new site and remote parts of the county. Others shared "non-related concerns over general voting in­tegrity issues during the 2020 elec­tion," according to the Lincoln Journal.

    In December, a plan to approve the consolidation was delayed for lack of a quorum. Media attention ramped up from there.

    Aunna Dennis, executive director for Common Cause Georgia, told the Augusta Chronicle in December that the county was "trying to do this undercover precinct consolidation" and several voting groups would begin a canvassing drive to stop the plan.

    "I think there are bad actors who are wanting to pilot precinct consolidations and takeovers of elections boards in smaller counties," she said.

    But Bolton, the elections director, said the voting rights groups never asked to speak with her or offered alternative solutions to the problems she was aiming to fix. She said she wished they'd come "to talk to me to see what I was doing, what was going on."

    Voting rights groups delivered a petition they said includes more than 600 signatures from three precincts in opposition to Lincoln County's plans to drastically reduce the number of polling places in the county.
    Stephen Fowler / Georgia Public Broadcasting
    /
    Georgia Public Broadcasting
    Voting rights groups delivered a petition they said includes more than 600 signatures from three precincts in opposition to Lincoln County's plans to drastically reduce the number of polling places in the county.

    At the press conference — after the petition was delivered — the voting groups said if staffing and polling places were an issue, they would be happy to help.

    The conflicting ideas on how to serve voters came to a head at a Lincoln County Board of Elections meeting on Jan. 19, where dozens of residents and advocates filled what is typically a sparsely occupied room.

    Many spoke about the need for multiple polling places spread throughout the county. Among them was resident Greg Grant, who said for people living in the far corners of the county, the new site in Lincolnton might as well be in a different state.

    "There's a lot of people that live in the northern end of the county that work in Elberton and Athens, that the commute back into town is just more of an inconvenience," he said, though he added, "Most people will do what they need to do to be able to get their vote in."

    The elections board meeting began with an announcement that no vote would be taken that night on closing polls. It ended abruptly after residents got into an exchange with the board chair over the proposal and the county's plan to offer rides to the polls for any voter who called.

    A Georgia law allows residents to halt plans to consolidate polling places if at least 20% of a precinct's voters sign a petition opposing the change. Voting rights groups said they gathered enough to cover three precincts. On Wednesday, Bolton sent advocates a letter saying they had met the required signature threshold in just one precinct. The group behind the petitions is reportedly seeking more information.

    Another meeting will likely be called soon to decide the fate of Lincoln County's seven polling places.

    It promises to be just as contentious as the last.

    When asked if, in hindsight, she would do anything differently, Bolton said no.

    "It's for the betterment of the community, not pointing fingers at anyone, not trying to suppress anybody's vote," she said.

    This story was reported by GPB's Stephen Fowler, and Carrie Levine and Pratheek Rebala of the Center for Public Integrity.

    Copyright 2022 Georgia Public Broadcasting

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    Stephen Fowler is the Producer/Back-Up Host for All Things Considered and a creative storyteller hailing from McDonough, Georgia. He graduated from Emory University with a degree in Interdisciplinary Studies. The program combined the best parts of journalism, marketing, digital media and music into a thesis on the rise of the internet rapper via the intersectionality of social media and hip-hop. He served as the first-ever Executive Digital Editor of The Emory Wheel, where he helped lead the paper into a modern digital era.
    Carrie Levine
    Pratheek Rebala