When is closing polls a form of voter suppression?

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In last week’s primary election, Georgians voted for the first time since the state enacted what many are calling one of the most restrictive voting bills in the country. Preliminary data shows that more than 90% of early voters voted in person rather than by mail, which is likely due at least in part to the new law’s restrictions on voting by mail. This suggests that the location of polling stations will be of urgent importance during the upcoming midterm elections in the fall, when more voters are expected.

However, many states have consolidated polling places, providing fewer voting sites. Political science research suggests this trend could make it harder for communities of color to vote.

Closures of polling stations since Shelby County vs. Holder

Closing and consolidating polling stations is among voter suppression strategies that have gone unregulated since the 2013 Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County vs. Holder. In this decision, the Supreme Court struck down the so-called “pre-clearance” of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) of 1965, declaring section 4(b) of the VRA unconstitutional. The “pre-screening” identified jurisdictions with a history of racially discriminatory voting practices and required those states and counties to submit any proposed changes to voting procedures to the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division for review. be assessed for racially discriminatory effects before they can be implemented. stock. Without this provision, states can now enforce new voting laws and practices without any prior federal oversight.

The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights reports that in the 13 states that were previously covered by the VRA’s preclearance provision, 1,688 polling places were closed between 2012 and 2018. Just under half of those occurred in only one state, Texas. , which closed 750 polling stations in an effort to centralize the vote.

Election officials often hail the move to polling centers — a term for centralized polling stations — as a cost-saving measure. But studies show that unless polling centers are equitably located, swapping local polling places for countywide polling centers could make it harder for some groups of voters to get to at the polls and reduce the likelihood of them voting.

As recently as March of this year, an election committee proposed closing all but one polling place in Lincoln County, Georgia. County residents rallied against the proposal, arguing that it would hurt rural voters, as many county residents live more than 20 miles from the proposed polling location.

According to the American Community Survey, only about 33% of Lincoln County households own a vehicle. Long journeys to a centralized polling place would almost certainly make voting more difficult for citizens with little access to transportation, including those with low incomes or with disabilities requiring special travel arrangements.

Prior to Shelby County’s decision, election officials proposing moves would need to prove that such a change would not have discriminatory impacts on marginalized groups of voters. Now, no assessment needs to be made at all. These changes can be challenged after they are implemented, using Section 2 of the VRA. But the disparate impact is hard to prove, making Section 2 cases often costly and unsuccessful.

Although the plan was rejected, Lincoln County’s proposal hints at further polling station closures that could affect marginalized voters in this fall’s midterm elections.

Voter suppression began long before Jim Crow. It’s a long American tradition.

Fewer polling stations means more travel time to polling stations and more waiting to vote.

Political science research reveals that voter turnout is lowest in constituencies where the distance to the polling station is the greatest. A 2020 study found that increasing the distance to the polling place by almost a quarter mile can reduce voter turnout by 2-5%, suggesting that the distance to polling places influences the likelihood that a person will vote.

The closing of polling stations does not only make it more difficult to access the ballot boxes. With fewer polling places, more people vote at each site. This means longer queues and more waiting time to vote. Many working-class voters don’t have the luxury of overtime to line up to vote.

Longer lines also severely affect voters with disabilities, making it difficult to stand or wait in public for long periods. A 2017 study showed that among voters with disabilities, 30% reported difficulty at the polls, with “queuing” being one of the main difficulties.

Other political science studies show that policies that increase the time it takes to vote (or the amount of information needed to determine where and how to vote) make it harder for voters to vote. This particularly discourages participation among groups with fewer resources.

The Senate did not restore this protection of the right to vote. My research shows that it worked.

Polling station closures more likely to affect voters of color

A look at closed polling places in recent elections suggests some jurisdictions are strategically closing venues used by voters of color to discourage them from voting. A statistical analysis of changes in polling places in Georgia from 2012 to 2018 estimates that increasing distance to polling places prevented between 54,000 and 85,000 voters from voting in the 2018 election. Voters blacks were 20% more likely than whites to miss an election due to polls closing.

Political science studies support this conclusion, showing that polling station closures affect voters in majority-minority neighborhoods far more than they affect voters in majority-white neighborhoods.

A 2020 study found that in the 2016 election, a one-mile increase in distance to a polling place reduced voter turnout by 19% in districts with a high proportion of minority residents. However, predominantly white neighborhoods experiencing a one-mile increase in distance only saw a 5% reduction in voter turnout.

In other words, the reduction in the number of polling stations makes it harder for minority voters to vote, preventing even some of the most determined voters from casting their ballots.

The location of polling stations will significantly influence the ability of all voters to vote in the 2022 midterm elections and beyond – and therefore their ability to be fairly represented. Reduced access to the ballot box effectively reduces access to democracy for some of the most marginalized groups in the United States: voters of color, voters with disabilities, and low-income voters. Citizens and policymakers who want to expand access to democracy may wish to advocate for equitable placement of polling places and pass legislation to protect the right to vote nationwide.

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Chelsea N. JonesMPP (@SojournerChels), is a doctoral candidate in political science and senior policy researcher at the Voting Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Julio V. Miller