Commentary

NC featured in new national report on polling site closures, voter suppression

As state lawmakers debate the issue of gerrymandering and electoral maps, researchers at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights are out with a new and powerful report about voter suppression in the aftermath of the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which swept away key elements of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The new report is entitled “Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote” (download a PDF version by clicking here) and it documents how a group of states — mostly in the South and including North Carolina — have closed large numbers of polling places in ways that disenfranchise voters of color.

This is from the report, which documents poll closures in hundreds of counties in recent years:

The national media have focused on discriminatory changes in voting policy and practice, such as the increase in photo identification requirements, purges from voting rolls, and reductions in rates of early voting. Yet poll closures have received little attention, even though they are a common and particularly pernicious way to disenfranchise voters of color. Decisions to shutter or reduce voting locations are often made quietly and at the last minute, making pre-election intervention or litigation virtually impossible. Closing polling places has a cascading effect, leading to long lines at other polling places, transportation hurdles, denial of language assistance and other forms of in-person help, and mass confusion about where eligible voters may cast their ballot. For many people, and particularly for voters of color, older voters, rural voters, and voters with disabilities, these burdens make it harder — and sometimes impossible — to vote.

And this is from the section on North Carolina:

Voters in North Carolina, where more than one-fifth (21 percent) of the population is African American, also have less access to polling stations. The 40 counties once covered by Section 5 of the VRA now have 29 fewer voting locations than they had before Shelby. The vast majority of these reductions occurred under the proverbial cover of darkness — without any notice or reporting from the news media. They are especially concerning because majority-White counties voted to shutter voting locations with significant Black populations over the vocal objections of local civil rights groups. The Pasquotank County Board of Elections, for example, shuttered half of the polling places in Elizabeth City — a majority-Black community — without public input and over the objections of the local NAACP branch. The consolidation was undertaken in 2015 in the name of saving money, yet no polling places were eliminated in other parts of the county.

While the situation in North Carolina is not as egregious as the ones in Texas, Georgia or Arizona, it’s clearly part of a broad and disturbing pattern that, the report argues convincingly, merits close scrutiny.

While all poll closures do not prove discrimination, they merit heightened scrutiny, given this country’s sordid history of excluding voters of color from the political process. Context matters. There may be legitimate reasons to reduce the number of polling places, perhaps because of a population decrease or reduced demand for Election Day voting because of increases in early or mail-in voting. When polling place reductions are planned in concert with diverse communities, evaluated in advance to ensure they won’t harm voters of color, and take place with clear notice and transparency, they can be implemented equitably. Before Shelby, states and localities with clear records of voter discrimination — like those discussed in this report — were required to take these steps when consolidating polling places. Today, they are not.

Let’s hope the report spurs renewed attention on this important and frequently overlooked issue. Click here to explore the report.

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