In Alabama’s rural Marengo County, there are six fewer voting locations this year than in 2010, a decrease of about 24 percent.
“We have recently combined some (polling places) and done away with others,” said Barry Hunt, a board of registrars member in the Black Belt county that now has 19 physical places for people to vote. “I haven’t heard any complaints about it here, but definitely some (voters) have to go farther than they did,” Hunt said.
Across the state, Alabamians will be going to fewer polling places on Tuesday than they did in 2010, according to a comparison by BirminghamWatch of precincts for the June 2018 primary and the 2010 general election.
Almost 100 polling places were shed by 25 counties. There are 2004 precincts in the state.
Some county officials said it was population shifts that caused closures. Others said condemned buildings or requests from property owners required a change.
Voting rights advocates, meanwhile, are calling for the restoration of the Voting Rights Act to protect people’s access to polls, particularly for minority voters.
USA Today this week reported that thousands of polling places nationwide have been closed in recent years, and the access to in-person voting is most significantly impacting urban areas and minority voters.
“We’re seeing voter suppression in so many ways,” Leigh Chapman, director of the voting rights program for the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said. She pointed to changes at polling places, voter ID laws and purges of voter rolls. “They make it harder for people of color to vote, people who don’t have transportation, students, the elderly.”
Decisions about polling places in Alabama are up to county officials. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, eliminated the requirement for any changes in voting procedures in Alabama and several other states to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Now, lack of transparency and notice to voters before closing a polling place concern advocates such as Chapman, who said tracking changes is a challenge. Prior to Shelby, even a move of a polling station across a street required preclearance. “Now, we just don’t have that transparency, we don’t know if they’re closed or consolidated or relocated,” she said.
In Randolph County, Georgia, earlier this year, county officials proposed closing seven of nine polling places in the majority minority county. Public pushback killed that plan.
The Alabama Secretary of State’s office could not provide a total list of voting precincts by county for 2010 and 2018. But election results on the agency’s website do list individual precincts for most counties. In the remaining counties, BirminghamWatch compared the number of precincts this year to 2010. Officials in several counties verified and explained their decreases.
In Marengo County, which is slightly more than half black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Hunt referred questions about why polling places were reduced to Probate Judge Laurie Hall and the county commission. Hall and the county commission chairman did not return phone calls.
Pickens County, also in the Black Belt, had a similar decline. County officials there did not return calls.
Precinct Closings in Large Counties Too
There were also closures in the state’s more populated counties.
In Jefferson County, there appeared to be about 11 fewer precincts.
“We’ve had a couple of occasions where we’ve had really small precincts that we’ve closed,” said Barry Stephenson, chair of the board of registrars. And when precincts get too large, they’re split, he said.
Without researching, Stephenson couldn’t verify the decrease of 11 polling places, but he said the number made sense. He said the county has had between 170 and 180 polling places as long as he’s been on the board.
Madison County, where the population is growing, has consolidated a few polling places in recent years, reducing its total number by two.
In Morgan County in north Alabama, five polling places in public schools were dropped in recent years, the precincts merged with others. School officials were concerned about maintaining students’ safety when the buildings are open to the public for voting, said Kate Terry, chief clerk in the Morgan County Probate Office.
“You’re opening up the school children to potential threats,” Terry said, explaining why school leaders asked that their buildings no longer be used. Voters were OK with the polling place changes when they were told the reason behind them, Terry said.
Just east of Morgan County, about 10 polling places have been closed in Marshall County, according to precinct data. In the past year, officials at a church said it couldn’t be used anymore and a community center was condemned.
“If the building isn’t available, we can’t send voters there,” Probate Judge Tim Mitchell said.
Some other polling places have been combined. He said there haven’t been many complaints because new polling places are just a few miles from the previous ones.
Combined polling places have another benefit: fewer poll workers needed.
“It’s always been an issue (to get enough workers),” Mitchell said. There’ also are fewer machines needed, which saves the county money.
Mobile County has seen a 10-precinct, 10 percent decline and now has 88 voting locations.
“The voting population has outgrown certain facilities in recent years and, while this change has resulted in fewer sites, we are now using larger facilities to better accommodate our citizens,” Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson said. “(Americans with Disabilities Act) compliance, traffic ingress/egress and parking were also major considerations in the selection of the new sites.”
Other counties with decreases in polling places include Montgomery and Etowah. Officials in those counties did not return requests for comment. Meanwhile, there were increases in some counties, despite a total net decrease statewide.
Chapman, the voters’ rights advocate, said there are legitimate reasons for moving polling places, including leaving buildings that aren’t accessible to people with disabilities. But the impact on voters must be considered and voter input given. “That’s why we need the full protection of the Voting Rights Act,” she said.
Stephenson and Mitchell agree that lifting the restrictions of Shelby v. Holder made it easier for counties to make changes.
But aside from contacting Washington, Jefferson County doesn’t do anything differently, Stephenson said. Presentations on proposed changes are made to the county commission and voters are notified.
“We’re following the same process,” he said.