With Election Day approaching, an odd little story from Dodge City, Kansas, made headlines in The New York Times and The Washington Post last week. Local elections officials in the Wild West outpost of yore, now a meatpacking center that’s majority-Latino, had moved their lone voting place outside the city limits, more than a mile from the nearest bus stop, as anti-immigration crusader Kris Kobach—the state elections chief—was fighting off a strong Democratic challenge in his quest for the governorship.
The whole controversy seemed so obviously outlandish—the kind of over-the-top effort to deter voters of color that could only happen in the Deep South or Kobach’s Kansas—that it’s no wonder the story was catnip for national reporters. While another secretary of state overseeing his own election for governor, Kobach’s Georgia ally Brian Kemp, had been garnering scrutiny for months with his massive “purges” of registered black voters, and while reports on the perils of voter ID laws have become numbingly familiar, the Dodge City tale offered a colorful twist on the theme of race-based voter suppression. The Times editors couldn’t resist a cheeky headline for this saga: “To Cast Their Ballots, These Voters Will Have to Get Out of Dodge.”
But the only unusual thing about this story was that it made news at all. Over the past decade, Republican elections officials have been shuttering polling places in minority neighborhoods, low-income districts, and on college campuses at a feverish pace. When Barack Obama was elected president in 2008, the U.S. had more than 132,000 polling places; by the time Donald Trump ascended to the White House, eight years later, more than 15,000 of them had been closed nationwide. After 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court basically lifted federal Voting Rights Act oversight from states that were particularly notorious for racial discrimination in elections—including Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, and Texas—the pace of poll closures went into hyperdrive. Thanks to Shelby County v. Holder, if you ran elections in a majority-black county in Georgia, or a booming Latino neighborhood in Houston, you no longer had to ask the Department of Justice to approve a change in where people could vote, or to prove the intent wasn’t discriminatory.
While voter ID laws must be passed by lawmakers, guaranteeing news coverage and public debate, it’s a snap to move or close polling locations. In most states, it can be done unilaterally—all that’s required is a local elections board or official with an eye toward giving Republicans an artificial advantage to seize their chance, and then provide some form of public notice. Closing polls or moving them to white neighborhoods (or all the way out of town) is thus the quietest and least visible form of voter suppression. And studies show that it can be startlingly effective in reducing voting rates—largely at the expense of Democrats. In 2018, this insidious form of targeting poor, black, Latino, and young voters could be the hidden factor in delivering a passel of key elections for Congress and governorships to the GOP—just as it boosted Donald Trump’s presidential bid in 2016.
Stick a pin on any map of marquee midterm races this year, and you’ll find poll closures targeting Democratic voters. A lot of them. Texas, where Ted Cruz is struggling to fend off Beto O’Rourke’s Senate challenge—and where Republicans have long feared the rising tide of young Latinos—has closed more than 400 polling places since 2013, leading the nation in that dubious statistic. Arizona, where Latinos are also threatening the GOP’s hegemony and Democrat Krysten Sinema is neck-and-neck against Rep. Martha McSally for Jeff Flake’s abandoned Senate seat, has closed 200, outpacing Texas on a per capita basis.
In Indiana, where Democratic Senator Joe Donnelly is trying to hold off mini-Trump challenger Mike Braun, more than 20 percent of polling locations have been axed. In North Carolina, Republicans have been more surgical in their approach, zeroing in on toss-up districts like majority-black Mecklenburg County, where young Democrat Dan McCready is trying to wrest away a vacant Republican seat in a tight House race. Mecklenburg is one of six counties in the state in which poll closures reduced black voter turnout by 50 percent or more in 2016.
How about Georgia, where Democrat Stacey Abrams is trying to ride an emerging Democratic majority to victory against Kemp and hasten the end of two decades of white Republican dominance? Surprise, surprise: More than 200 polls have closed since the Roberts Court gave the state a green light to discriminate. And as The Atlanta Journal-Constitution revealed this summer (Kemp’s secretary of state office conveniently keeps no track of the closures), they correlate in near-perfect synchronicity with concentrations of high poverty rates across the state—the places where fewer people have cars to drive to the polls, where public transportation is often non-existent, and where African Americans vote Democratic.
The closures in Georgia could, just as surely as Kemp’s aggressive purges of registered black voters from the rolls, determine the outcome in his dead-heat race with Abrams. This is just pure coincidence, both the secretary of state and local elections officials insist—simply a matter of local Republicans making elections more “cost-efficient” by “consolidating” polling places in more “convenient” white neighborhoods.
But the plague of poll closings in Georgia commenced in earnest in 2015, after Kemp’s office issued a handy guide, formatted Q&A-style, to county officials statewide. Here’s how it starts:
“When should you begin the plan of consolidation or making changes to precincts or polling places?
Twice, the document notes, in bold type: “As a result of the Shelby vs. Holder Supreme Court decision, you are no longer required to submit polling place changes to the Department of Justice for preclearance.” A particularly helpful section offers advice on how to sell the closures to the public, just in case anybody notices what’s happening before it’s too late to protest: “You can create a professional well thought out presentation,” it says, “showing ... how the changes can benefit the voters and public interest.” Neat!
For every poll closure that raises alarm—before confused voters encounter them during elections, that is—many more of them tend to slip by, unnoticed and unchallenged. This summer in southwestern Georgia, a flap broke out in rural Randolph County, a vast but sparsely populated majority-black (and majority-Democratic) county, where an “election consultant” dispatched by Kemp’s office had advised the local elections board to close seven of nine polling places to save dollars and effort. This would have forced some low-income voters to travel several miles to vote—an impossibility for many, including folks who couldn’t spare so much time away from their jobs or families.
The plan was foiled by sharp-eyed former school superintendent and local Democratic Party chair Bobby Jenkins, who spotted the obligatory notice of the pending change in the fine-print legal notices of the local paper. His discovery led to mass protests and threatened lawsuits from civil-rights groups. Kemp, by then running against Abrams and trying to moderate his hard-won image as a virulent white nationalist, backed down. Which was easy enough, because his consultant had already persuaded ten other low-income counties with large black populations to close polling spots this year alone—on top of the hundreds already eliminated between 2013 and 2016.
Eight of those shuttered polling places are in Macon-Bibb County, where African Americans protested an even more sweeping round of proposed shutdowns in 2015 and warded off a few. Before civil-rights groups found out and raised a fuss, local elections officer Tom Gillon had intended to close 14 of the county’s 40 voting precincts, all in majority-black neighborhoods.
Like his Republican peers across the country, Gillon expressed dismay at the idea that this could be motivated by a desire to create new obstacles for particular voters. “That was the last thing we would consider as a reason for doing that,” he protested. “If the county had more money for us, we’d open up more polling places. We’d be happy to do that, but we have a county government whose budget is very strapped right now.” The intended savings, he said, would amount to $40,000 a year—about $3,000 for every proposed poll closure. The county’s annual budget is $161 million.
Few elections officials are as bracingly honest about their intentions as former Republican legislator Mike Bennett, who became supervisor of elections in Florida’s Manatee County after long lines had discouraged a lot of local voters in 2012. Long lines, often caused by “consolidating” several polling places into one, have been shown to discourage voters just as much as increased distances and lack of transportation. But Bennett set out to make them even longer by closing as many polling places as possible—30 percent of the county’s total. He’d already made his reasoning crystal clear: “Why would we make it any easier? I want ‘em to fight for it,” Bennett said in a 2011 speech, before being term-limited out of the legislature. “I want the people of the state of Florida to want to vote as bad as that person in Africa who’s willing to walk 200 miles.”
Black and Latino voters in Manatee weren’t willing to go to such lengths, as it turned out; a University of Florida study showed that their turnout dropped by 3 and 5 percent, respectively, after Bennett’s mass poll closures.
Back when Georgia started picking off black voters’ polling places in 2013, Stacey Abrams was the minority leader of the state House—and knew exactly what was happening. “If you want to restrict voter turnout in minority and disadvantaged communities, a good way is to move a polling place somewhere they can’t get to,” she said at the time.
Now Abrams, in her epic faceoff against her longtime voting-rights foe Kemp, has to overcome not only this form of voter suppression, but also one of the nation’s most restrictive voter ID regimes and the accompanying scourge of voter purges if she wants to become the first black governor of Georgia. Her campaign has spent a great deal of energy and resources to encourage folks to use mail-in absentee ballots and vote early, to avoid being discouraged by long lines on Election Day. (Abrams herself voted early, driving the point home.)
Democrats in Georgia have responded to the call, voting early in record numbers. Whether that’ll be enough to overcome the advantage Kemp has built in eight years of using every trick in the voter-suppressing book will be revealed on Election Night, when the secretary of state himself will certify a winner in a race that polls show as a statistical tie.
But even if poll closures don’t provide swing-state Republicans the margins of victory they hope for this year, there’s no question we’ll see a whole new raft of them between now and 2020. While some Democrats were slow to catch up to the reality that targeted poll closures can lower turnout just as effectively as voter ID laws, gerrymanders, and voter purges, Republicans have known it and wielded it for years. Indiana’s Republican secretary of state, Connie Lawson—who has unusual power to close local precincts herself—has already announced that she’ll be shuttering a stunning 170 majority-Democratic polling places for 2020 in Lake County, the state’s largest and home to three of its biggest black populations in East Chicago, Hammond, and Gary.
“It is just so Jim Crow,” Carol Anderson, Emory professor and author of a new book on voter suppression, One Person, No Vote, told me recently. “How does this happen without it flaring it up more often as it did in Randolph County in Georgia? It’s the way it’s cloaked in legalese, buried in the local newspaper, looking to anyone who happens to notice it like just another routine bureaucratic change.
“When we think about old-style voter suppression,” Anderson continued, “we often think about the violence, the clash on the Pettus Bridge, the murders of folks like Herbert Lee and Louis Allen, who were working to get people to register to vote. But Jim Crow operated under the legal system. That’s what we miss. The laws, the poll taxes, the literacy tests—they all had the aura of legitimacy. What we have today, with poll closures done in the interest of ‘streamlining’ and ‘saving taxpayer money,’ is no less pernicious. And no less pervasive.”