Nearly one year after the Supreme Court’s ruling in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder, much of the discussion around its devastating effects has been focused on statewide voting law changes such as voter ID. This discussion, however, overlooks an immensely important facet of the Voting Right Act’s former preclearance process: it widely exposed the racially discriminatory actions of small towns, cities, and counties.
Preclearance prevented local jurisdictions from flying under the radar because it ensured that residents were informed of any changes to voting procedures. Local officials were required to closely consider the discriminatory impacts of seemingly small changes, such as moving or closing polling places.
The ways in which these small changes can add up to big impacts can be seen in the case of Baker County, located in Georgia’s southwest corner, where election officials debated whether to close four out of five polling places. This 342-square-mile county has a population of 3,500, 47 percent of whom are Black and 36 percent of whom live in poverty. These residents may not be wealthy, but they recognize the value of the ballot box: 75 percent of registered voters cast ballots in 2012.
With no public transportation system and where residents are twice as likely as Georgians statewide to lack access to a vehicle, the closure of polling places would require residents to travel up to 25 miles to cast their votes. For those who don’t have a car and can’t afford to take time off from work to get to their polling place, this plan presented a major obstacle to voting.
Most disturbingly, the only rationale offered by officials for the closings was the potential to save a paltry $8,000. It is a safe bet that Baker County planned to “earn” this slim savings on the backs of the African-American voters who likely would have borne the brunt of these closures
Once the NAACP Legal Defense Fund found out about and voiced opposition to the proposed closures, Baker County officials quickly backpedaled, saying that the plan was still only “under consideration.”
As the clock ticks down to Shelby County’s anniversary, the threats to voters in Baker County and other local jurisdictions remain very real. Fortunately, many of the provisions in the bipartisan Voting Rights Amendment Act (“VRRA”) would directly address these threats. The VRAA would modernize and reestablish the preclearance process, and require that the public receive broad notice before all states and most jurisdictions make any polling place or other voting changes.
Let’s continue to call on Congress to hold hearings on the VRAA. Our Democracy depends on ensuring both that every voter across the country is fully informed about state and local voting changes, and that voters are empowered to prevent discriminatory changes before they happen.