By Tom Baxter
Last week, in a meeting that took less time than it would have to say a prayer and the Pledge of Allegiance, the Randolph County Board of Elections voted down a proposal to close seven of its nine polling places before this November’s election.
This was hailed as a victory by Democrats and civil rights groups who brought national attention to the closings, which they said were intended to suppress turnout in this 60 percent-black county a few miles southeast of Plains. Understandably so: Last week’s meeting wouldn’t have concluded nearly so quickly and decisively if it hadn’t been for the heat brought by these groups.
There’s a way you could see the proposal to close the polling places — and some of its defenders do — as part of the larger story of the hollowing-out of rural south Georgia, like the school consolidations and hospital closings which have also affected areas like Randolph County. Other counties around Randolph have already consolidated polling places to reduce costs, and some of the polling sites to be closed weren’t in compliance with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
“Is this the right time? The answer is no. It’s not,” consultant Mike Malone said of the proposal at a public meeting held to introduce the changes. “The reason it’s not the right time? It’s never the right time. Should we wait for the presidential year? Should we wait for an off-year?”
As it has turned out the answer to the latter question should have been, emphatically, yes. In this year’s heated election atmosphere, such an action was bound to be interpreted as a racial provocation. The board had already fired Malone before it ditched his proposals, which is a convenient thing about consultants. Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who received a $250 donation from Malone and recommended him for the job, may find him a little harder to shake.
To put things in perspective, the victory in this incident was measured more by dollars raised in fundraising appeals than votes. A total of 1,221 people voted in Randolph County in the May 22 primaries, with 777 votes cast in the Democratic Primary and 444 in the Republican Primary.
Meanwhile a much larger battle over ballot access rages, with much less scrutiny.
Last week the Macon Telegraph spotlighted two of some 2,500 people who received letters from the Macon-Bibb County Board of Elections informing them that if they didn’t respond in 30 days, they would be classified as “inactive voters” because they’d moved, failed to respond to election-related mail or hadn’t voted in a long time. It turned out the letters were triggered when the board sent out letters about a change in precinct locations, and some of the letters were returned.
One of them was local dentist Lindsay Holliday, a political gadfly and past candidate for office who is anything but inactive.
“I’m definitely an activist, and I’m ready to get active about this,” said Holliday, who claims to have voted in every Georgia election for the past 40 years.
A second Macon voter, Heather Bowman Cutway, was told simply to ignore the letter when she called the Secretary of State’s office, even though she probably should have been advised to send in the stamped card confirming she was an active voter to avoid confusion later.
Across the state, some 35,000 registered voters have received these voter confirmation letters, as they are called. Some will either send back their confirmations or just show up at the polls, but voting rights advocates caution that these letters can be intimidating to younger and less educated voters, who may decide just to skip the hassle and not vote. There are probably a lot more voters who fit this category than there are voters in Randolph County.
Turnout in this fall’s election will probably be well over the nearly 2.5 million who voted four years ago, but the margin, by all indications, is likely to be much thinner. The battle over ballot access could get much more intense.