Why Do Nonwhite Georgia Voters Have To Wait in Line for Hours? Too Few Polling Places

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Voters at Christian City Welcome Center in Union City, Georgia, during the state’s June primary. For some residents, it was a five-hour wait.

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Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica analysis of state records

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% or more nonwhite, but only 6 minutes in polling places that were 90% 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.

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Hundreds of people wait in line for early voting on Oct. 12, 2020, in Marietta, Ga. Eager voters have waited six hours or more in the former Republican stronghold of Cobb County, and lines have wrapped around buildings in solidly Democratic DeKalb County.

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Angela Maddox after voting in a primary runoff in August.

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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% 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.

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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% 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?»

This article is part of Electionland, ProPublica’s collaborative reporting project covering problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections.


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