Voting in the November midterms could get harder in one majority-black Georgia county with a poverty rate nearly double the national average.
Randolph County, population 7,224, is about three hours south of Atlanta. The rural, agricultural area is considered part of the south's "Black Belt." It's known for producing peanuts and cotton, as well as a history of slavery, racial violence and voter suppression.
Nine polling places are spread out across Randolph County's 428 square miles, but the local board of elections on Friday morning is set to decide whether seven of them should be closed, leaving just two open in the center of the county.
The proposal has quickly become a messy campaign issue, even as it veers away from stereotypes about Democratic and Republican stances on voting issues.
Amplifying the political stakes is a historic contest for governor in Georgia this November. Democrat Stacey Abrams would be the first black female governor in the U.S. Abrams founded a group called the New Georgia Project, with the goal of registering voters of color and encouraging them to show up at the polls.
Abrams' opponent, Republican Brian Kemp, is Georgia's secretary of state, the top election official in the state. Kemp boasts about being tough on voter fraud. In 2014, he and Abrams clashed over voter registration forms submitted by contractors of the New Georgia Project.
Republicans and Democrats in Georgia, including Kemp and Abrams, say they are opposed to closing the polling places. Randolph County residents and civil rights groups, including the ACLU of Georgia, argue the proposal would make voting especially difficult for African-Americans and people with low incomes who live on the county's fringes.
The controversy highlights the challenges of running elections in rural jurisdictions that are often struggling financially. There is a limited public transportation system in Randolph County, and as some residents have pointed out, many young and elderly people don't have cars, so traveling the extra distance can be a deterrent to voting.
"The people that we work against on a daily basis, since emancipation, no longer put up 'white only' signs and 'colored only' signs, [but] they do other things," says Bobby Fuse, an activist in the area.
"You can't stop us all, but they're going to try to stop the ones that they can by closing the precincts," voter and activist Sandra Willis says. Republicans are worried they can't beat a strong candidate like Abrams, Willis says.
But Mike Malone, the election consultant who was hired to advise Randolph County, explained in a public meeting last week that the proposal is about saving money. "The trend in Georgia, and other states, is to reduce the polling places, to reduce election costs, which is natural," he said.
Thursday, however, the county announced it is terminating its contract with Malone. That came just a day before the board is expected to make a decision about closing the seven polling places ahead of the November midterms. Malone did not respond to calls or text messages asking for comment.
"If I was going to suppress voters, I probably would not choose a county the size of Randolph to create this controversy," says Tommy Coleman, the county's lawyer. "As a practical matter, it would have a marginal effect on the election."
Randolph County is controlled by Democrats, and Republicans argue the move is a scheme to keep Republican voters from the polls. Coleman says closing some polls in an effort to consolidate resources makes sense, but the idea needs more research and probably shouldn't happen just months before the election. Civil rights groups are threatening lawsuits if the county approves the plan on Friday.
An earlier Web version of this story incorrectly said there is no public transportation system in Randolph County. In fact, there is a limited public transportation system in the county.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
People in a rural area of south Georgia could have a harder time voting this November. Randolph County is set to decide tomorrow whether to close seven of its nine polling stations. Adding to the tension over this plan is a historic contest for governor in the state. Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE brings us the story.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Randolph County sits about three hours south of Atlanta. The area is known for its vast peanut and cotton fields and a violent history of enslavement and voter suppression. Today, about 63 percent of the county's small population is black. The poverty rate is more than double the national average.
BOBBY FUSE: Thank you for showing your support.
KAUFFMAN: About 75 people opposing the poll closures gathered last night at a restaurant to organize.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Ain't going to let nobody turn me around.
KAUFFMAN: Bobby Fuse is an activist in the region. Fuse and civil rights groups argue closing the polling places would make voting especially difficult for African-Americans and people with low incomes.
FUSE: The people that we work against on a daily basis since emancipation no longer put up white-only signs and colored-only signs. They do other things.
KAUFFMAN: One voter at the rally, Dianne Jones, lives in Benevolence. It's a small community in northern Randolph County. If the polling place there closes, it would mean a 15-minute drive for people to vote on Election Day. Jones says the problem is some people in Benevolence can't afford a car.
DIANNE JONES: No jobs, no jobs, no jobs - you can't get - yes, get some just like that. You can't have a job.
KAUFFMAN: Randolph County's proposal to close polling places was quickly entangled in the politics of Georgia's race for governor, which is just a little more than two months away.
SANDRA WILLIS: First thing - there's a black person running for governor.
KAUFFMAN: Sandra Willis stuck around after the rally died down. She says Republicans are worried they can't beat strong candidates like Democrat Stacey Abrams.
WILLIS: They can't stop us all, but they're going to try to stop the ones that they can by closing the precincts.
KAUFFMAN: Abrams would be the first black female governor in the country. She says Randolph County should not close the polling places. The Republican candidate in the governor's race is Secretary of State Brian Kemp. He's in charge of elections in Georgia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE MALONE: Consolidation has become highly recommended by the secretary of state.
KAUFFMAN: That's election consultant Mike Malone at a recent meeting in Randolph County. Today the county announced plans to end its contract with Malone. At the earlier meeting, though, Malone read from a slide that says Kemp endorsed his plan to close seven polling places.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MALONE: The trend in Georgia and other states is to reduce the polling places to reduce election cost, which is natural.
KAUFFMAN: The secretary of state's office denies it had anything to do with Malone and the county's proposal. And Kemp says he staunchly opposes it. Malone did not respond to calls or text messages. The politics of the whole situation are murky at best. Randolph County is controlled by Democrats, and Republicans argue it's all a scheme to keep their voters from the polls. Tommy Coleman is the county's lawyer. He says the county is not trying to make voting more difficult.
TOMMY COLEMAN: You know, if I was going to suppress voters, I probably would not choose a county the size of Randolph to create this controversy about 'cause as a practical matter, it would have a marginal effect on the election, I suppose.
KAUFFMAN: Coleman says closing some polls makes sense, but it needs more research. Civil rights groups are threatening lawsuits if the county approves the plan on Friday. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Cuthbert, Ga. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.