Reprinted with permission from ProPublica
Kathy spotted the long line of voters as she pulled into the Christian City Welcome Center about 3:30 p.m., ready to cast her ballot in the June 9 primary election.
Hundreds of people were waiting in the heat and rain outside the lush, tree-lined complex in Union City, an Atlanta suburb with 22,400 residents, nearly 88 percent of them Black. She briefly considered not casting a ballot at all, but decided to stay.
By the time she got inside more than five hours later, the polls had officially closed and the electronic scanners were shut down. Poll workers told her she'd have to cast a provisional ballot, but they promised that her vote would be counted.
“I'm now angry again, I'm frustrated again, and now I have an added emotion, which is anxiety," said Kathy, a human services worker, recalling her emotions at the time. She asked that her full name not be used because she fears repercussions from speaking out. “I'm wondering if my ballot is going to count."
By the time the last voter finally got inside the welcome center to cast a ballot, it was the next day, June 10.
The clogged polling locations in metro Atlanta reflect an underlying pattern: the number of places to vote has shrunk statewide, with little recourse. Although the reduction in polling places has taken place across racial lines, it has primarily caused long lines in nonwhite neighborhoods where voter registration has surged and more residents cast ballots in person on Election Day. The pruning of polling places started long before the pandemic, which has discouraged people from voting in person.
In Georgia, considered a battleground state for control of the White House and U.S. Senate, the difficulty of voting in Black communities like Union City could possibly tip the results on Nov. 3. With massive turnout expected, lines could be even longer than they were for the primary, despite a rise in mail-in voting and Georgians already turning out by the hundreds of thousands to cast ballots early.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013 eliminated key federal oversight of election decisions in states with histories of discrimination, Georgia's voter rolls have grown by nearly 2 million people, yet polling locations have been cut statewide by nearly 10 percent, according to an analysis of state and local records by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica. Much of the growth has been fueled by younger, nonwhite voters, especially in nine metro Atlanta counties, where four out of five new voters were nonwhite, according to the Georgia secretary of state's office.
The metro Atlanta area has been hit particularly hard. The nine counties — Fulton, Gwinnett, Forsyth, DeKalb, Cobb, Hall, Cherokee, Henry and Clayton — have nearly half of the state's active voters but only 38 percent of the polling places, according to the analysis.
As a result, the average number of voters packed into each polling location in those counties grew by nearly 40 percent, from about 2,600 in 2012 to more than 3,600 per polling place as of Oct. 9, the analysis shows. In addition, a last-minute push that opened more than 90 polling places just weeks before the November election has left many voters uncertain about where to vote or how long they might wait to cast a ballot.
The growth in registered voters has outstripped the number of available polling places in both predominantly white and Black neighborhoods. But the lines to vote have been longer in Black areas, because Black voters are more likely than whites to cast their ballots in person on Election Day and are more reluctant to vote by mail, according to U.S. census data and recent studies. Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that about two-thirds of the polling places that had to stay open late for the June primary to accommodate waiting voters were in majority-Black neighborhoods, even though they made up only about one-third of the state's polling places. An analysis by Stanford University political science professor Jonathan Rodden of the data collected by Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that the average wait time after 7 p.m. across Georgia was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90 percent or more nonwhite, but only 6 minutes in polling places that were 90 percent white.
Georgia law sets a cap of 2,000 voters for a polling place that has experienced significant voter delays, but that limit is rarely if ever enforced. Our analysis found that, in both majority Black and majority white neighborhoods, about nine of every 10 precincts are assigned to polling places with more than 2,000 people.
A June 2020 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that the average number of voters assigned to a polling place has grown in the past five years in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — all states with substantial Black populations that before Shelby needed federal approval to close polling places under the Voting Rights Act. And though dozens of states have regulations on the size of voting precincts and polling places or the number of voting machines, the analysis found that many jurisdictions do not abide by them.
Georgia's state leadership and elections officials have largely ignored complaints about poll consolidations even as they tout record growth in voter registration. As secretary of state from 2010 to 2018, when most of Georgia's poll closures occurred, Brian Kemp, now the governor, took a laissez-faire attitude toward county-run election practices, save for a 2015 document that spelled out methods officials could use to shutter polling places to show “how the change can benefit voters and the public interest."
Kemp's office declined to comment Thursday on the letter or why poll closures went unchallenged by state officials. His spokesperson referred back to his previous statements that he did not encourage officials to close polling places but merely offered guidance on how to follow the law.
The inaction has left Black voters in Georgia facing barriers reminiscent of Jim Crow laws, said Adrienne Jones, a political science professor at Morehouse College in Atlanta who has studied the impact of the landmark Shelby decision on Black voters.
Voter suppression “is happening with these voter impediments that are being imposed," Jones said.
“You're closing down polling places so people have a more difficult time getting there. You're making vote-by-mail difficult or confusing. Now we're in court arguing about which ballots are going to be accepted, and it means that people have less trust in our state."
In August, on the 55th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, the Democratic Party of Georgia, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and three Georgia voters sued the state and more than a dozen counties in federal court, alleging that some of the state's most populous areas have disenfranchised voters for more than a decade with long lines caused by inadequate staff, training, equipment and voting locations.
The suit, which was dismissed after the judge ruled the parties had no standing to file, warned of upheaval during the Nov. 3 election.
“As bad as the situation would be in normal circumstances, the burden is made far worse by the global pandemic," the lawsuit stated. “Absent judicial intervention, Georgia is set for more of the same (and likely far worse than it has ever seen) in November."
Republican Brad Raffensperger, who took over as secretary of state in January 2019, has called for more resources and polling places, but he has been unable to push these changes through the GOP-controlled legislature.
Raffensperger's office blames Democrats and county elections officials for opposing his efforts to improve access. “As Secretary of State, Brad Raffensperger pushed legislation that would force counties to expand polling locations and directly address these issues," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs said in an email.
“Unfortunately, every single Democratic Senator and Representative voted against this proposal saying that it would cause 'confusion.' Georgia voters deserve to know who is actually holding back progress and it isn't the Secretary of State's Office."
Democrats and voting rights groups said they opposed the Raffensperger-backed bill because they believed it weakened state election supervision and made it harder for people to vote. The proposal shifted even more responsibility for elections from the state to counties, “without the necessary training, funding or support," Lauren Groh-Wargo, chief executive of Fair Fight, a voting rights group founded by former gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, said at the time.
A History of Discrimination
Georgia's history of voting violations stretches back more than a century, with poll taxes, literacy and citizenship tests, and intimidation that disenfranchised many Black citizens.
Under the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Georgia and eight other states with histories of discrimination were required to seek federal approval before making changes such as eliminating polling places in Black neighborhoods or shifting polling locations at the last minute. Dozens of counties and townships in six more states also had to seek pre-clearance.
Then in 2013, in a case brought by Shelby County, Alabama, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out the method for determining which jurisdictions had to seek prior approval, saying it was unconstitutional because it was outdated. The court suggested that Congress could pass new guidelines, but lawmakers have been unable to reach agreement, leaving the pre-clearance requirement unenforceable.
Jones, the Morehouse professor, said the recent changes would clearly have required federal approval if not for the Shelby decision.
“All of these kinds of exercises … would have had to be considered by the Department of Justice — or would not have been suggested because it would have been clear that the Department of Justice would have dinged them," she said. “And part of that has to do with the importance of Black voters, particularly in the Democratic Party."
Exacerbating Shelby's impact in Georgia was an explosion in voter registrations. Thanks in part to the state's “motor voter" law that updates records whenever a voter interacts with the Department of Driver Services, the state's voter rolls have swelled by a third since the 2012 presidential election. In two metro Atlanta counties, Gwinnett and Henry, the voting population shifted from majority white to majority nonwhite, contributing to Georgia's transition from red state to purple.
As the number of voters was swelling, county officials across the state began a steady stream of closures of polling locations.
By June 2020, Georgia voters had 331 fewer polling places than in November 2012, a 13 percent reduction. Because of added pressure from the coronavirus pandemic, metro Atlanta alone had lost 82 voting locations by the time June's primary rolled around. Nearly half of the state's 159 counties had closed at least one polling place since 2012.
Fulton County, which includes Atlanta, and DeKalb County realigned dozens of precincts after some municipalities were annexed or newly established. Other counties cited changes in voter behavior, or tight budgets, but the Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica analysis found only nominal savings.
In Union City, about 20 minutes southwest of Atlanta in Fulton County, the number of active voters has grown about 60 percent since 2012.
Three polls were open for the June primary, with 9,000 voters assigned to the Christian City Welcome Center. Two additional polling places are being set up for the Nov. 3 election, including one that will reduce the burden on the Welcome Center. Three others, however, will still have more than 5,000 voters each.
In a September county elections board meeting, Fulton officials said the goal had been to add more polling places in 2020 to accommodate population growth. The coronavirus pandemic resulted in closures or relocations, but most sites have been reopened.
Urban Congestion at the Polls
The influx of voters meant that already overburdened polling places got even busier.
Statewide, the number of voters served by the average polling place rose 47 percent, from 2,046 voters in 2012 to 3,003 as of Oct. 9, according to the analysis. Some rural counties have as many as 22,000 voters assigned to a single polling place.
Forsyth County, one of the fastest-growing counties in the nation, has grown its voter rolls by nearly 60 percent — or 60,000 voters — in the last eight years. Forsyth, a mostly white county about 45 minutes' drive north of Atlanta, now averages about 8,000 voters per polling place. Officials cut nine of its 25 polling places in 2013 and another after the 2016 election, but added back five locations in 2019. No additional sites are expected to be opened for the November election.
Fulton County added nearly a quarter-million voters while consolidating voting locations. When the coronavirus struck, the last-minute unavailability of two polling places forced the assignment of 16,000 people to vote in June at Park Tavern, a restaurant/event space that reported 350 voters in line before the first vote was cast.
Six of Gwinnett County's seven most congested polling places serve predominantly nonwhite neighborhoods. In Lawrenceville, home to one of the largest Black populations in the county, a judge ordered polls at the Gwinnett County Department of Water Resources to stay open late during the primary for the nearly 7,000 voters assigned there. It was one of 16 polling locations with missing voting machines on the morning of the primary election.
Angela Maddox, a health care worker, cast her ballot there for the Aug. 11 primary runoff, when only local rather than statewide races were on the ballot. She said she was grateful that equipment was in place and low turnout meant no lines. The reports of voters waiting six hours or more in the primary were “disgusting," she said.
“I know it's a big problem and it seems to continuously happen in Black communities," she said. “That's where you tend to see a lot of the machines breaking down, or fewer machines, or any and everything to not count our vote, which is not fair."
Gwinnett County officials obtained federal approval in 2010 — before the Shelby decision — to reduce the number of polls from 163 to 156, citing cost savings and operational efficiency. Since then, the county has kept the same number of polling places while adding more than 175,000 active voters. The average polling place handled 3,649 voters in the June primary and is set for 3,719 for November.
Who's to Blame?
Since the Shelby decision, the Georgia State Election Board, chaired by Raffensperger, has been the primary body for investigating and potentially sanctioning counties found to have violated election laws and procedures.
But the election board has rarely investigated the sort of violations that the U.S. Department of Justice once stepped in to review under the Voting Rights Act.
**Since 2010, when Kemp began his eight-year stint as secretary of state, the board has heard hundreds of cases, citing individuals for such violations as wearing political gear to the polls, and rebuking counties for mishandling voter registrations or absentee ballots. But it has taken no action to examine the poll closures that have been approved post-Shelby and has allowed a backlog of dozens of complaints to accumulate. In 2015, Kemp's office sent the letter to county elections officials that included advice on closing polling places.
In September, with Georgia in the national spotlight over its handling of elections, the board cleared a backlog of nearly 100 outstanding cases dating back to 2014, and referred several to the attorney general's office for further review. Among those was Fulton County's alleged mishandling of the June primary. The attorney general's office is still investigating.
In early October, the secretary of state's office told four counties that had long lines, absentee ballot problems and late opening or closing polls in the primary — Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett in the metro Atlanta area and Chatham County in southeast Georgia —to avoid a repeat by providing weekly updates on poll worker training, polling places and line management plans.
Besides the board's actions, the Georgia Senate considered a proposal filed in February and endorsed by Raffensperger. It would have required county elections supervisors to add more equipment or poll workers, or split up any precincts with more than 2,000 voters, if there was a wait longer than an hour measured at three different points on Election Day.
More than 1,500 of Georgia's 2,655 precincts have at least 2,000 voters — many of them in urban Democratic counties — and Raffensperger said at the time that voters should never have to wait more than 30 minutes.
But the bill, SB 463, was opposed by Democratic lawmakers and voting rights groups, who argued that any revamping in an election year would cause confusion and create more ways to keep people from casting their ballot.
“Do you have any concerns about trying to change the rules of the game in the middle of an election cycle when we have so much litigation that is currently pending with respect to the state's handling of previous elections?" state Sen. Jen Jordan, a Democrat from Atlanta, asked during the floor debate.
The bill originated in the state Senate, which approved it. The proposal then went to a state House of Representatives committee, where Republicans substituted a version that didn't address the polling place issue and barred the secretary of state and county elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters. Their redesign never reached a floor vote, eliminating any prospect of legislative changes in the 2020 session, which ended in June.
That same month, after the primary election, Raffensperger held a press conference in Fulton County outside Park Tavern, which had processed more voters than 96 percent of the state's polling places. Flanked by posters highlighting recent election woes, he urged local officials to add poll workers and voting locations while improving technical support and training.
“We know that we need a more diverse pool of voting locations to spread the load of voters that we are anticipating," Raffensperger said.
Nikema Williams, chair of Georgia's Democratic Party, said that while state officials took little or no action to stop widespread voting problems in non-white communities, local elections officials are also responsible, since they ultimately decide whether to close or open more voting sites.
“We added counties as a defendant in the [August] lawsuit because we want to make sure that we're getting this right," she said. “And at the end of the day, what matters to us is that voters are not negatively impacted at any level of the electoral process."
Although the judge chided Democratic officials for offering vague remedies and failing to provide sufficient evidence that long lines are likely in November, Phi Nguyen, litigation director for Asian Americans Advancing Justice Atlanta, said there is plenty of evidence in plain sight.
Nguyen's organization has challenged a number of Georgia election laws in court, including the “exact match" policy that blocks voter registrations that do not exactly match a state or federal database. AAAJA also filed a lawsuit that forced Gwinnett County to change its process for rejecting absentee ballots.
She said the metro Atlanta counties' election administrators have not kept up with the wave of newer, more diverse voters, increasing the chances of disenfranchisement.
Nguyen was a poll monitor at the Infinite Energy Center arena for the primary and did not leave until the final votes were cast, well after polls closed at 7 p.m. “Georgia made national news because of the breakdown in our election systems," she said. “Long lines are certainly an issue and they happen more often in under-resourced places, which tend to be where communities of color live."
Changes Before Election Day
Some counties in the metro Atlanta area have tried to increase polling locations before the November election.
Just weeks before Nov. 3, Fulton County approved 91 new polling places, focusing on areas where the lines were longest for the June primary. Fourteen polling places — including two of the four polling places in Union City — will still have more than 5,000 voters assigned, but that's a sharp drop from the 60 sites that had more than 5,000 voters assigned for the primary election, said Fulton County Elections Director Rick Barron.
“If you have fewer people assigned to a polling location, you have fewer people that are going to go to that location," he said. “We had some polling places in June where we had 9,000-17,000 voters assigned to these locations, so what this does is it spreads everyone out amongst many more locations."
The more than 16,000 primary voters who were assigned to Park Tavern are now split among five polling places, ranging from fewer than 1,500 voters to nearly 5,500. Park Tavern will remain a polling site, with about 4,300 voters.
But widespread rejiggering of polling locations just weeks before a presidential election comes with its own risks. A 2018 study of North Carolina voters from Stanford University found that relocating polling places decreases turnout, especially for younger voters.
For now, Fulton County officials are hoping for an 80 percent early voting rate to minimize voter confusion and other problems on Election Day, when the nation's eyes will once again be on Georgia. And they have doubled the election budget to $34 million, purchasing two mobile voting buses as polling sites to alleviate early lines and launching a massive outreach campaign to change voter behavior.
There are more than 30 early voting locations, including a mega-voting site at Atlanta's professional basketball arena equipped with 60 check-in computers and 300 voting machines. On the first day of in-person early voting Monday, Oct. 12, officials recorded the second-highest single-day total in recent years. Statewide, a record 128,000 Georgians braved long lines that first day.
Still, Kathy in Union City is worried that her vote won't be counted.
“When you look at the systemic issues that plague us as a society, oftentimes we're screaming but we're not being heard," she said. “Historically, we have seen that services and resources for Black communities have always been very inadequate, and this is just an extension of that. ... How could there be such a huge disparity?"
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