A Georgia county set off a tense debate by planning to reduce polling sites
Concerns over Lincoln County's proposal suggest many election administration decisions will now be viewed through a lens of growing mistrust.
ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Voting rights advocates in Georgia have temporarily stopped a rural county's plans to reduce its polling locations down to a single site. While Republican-led changes in the state have restricted voting access, the Center for Public Integrity and Georgia Public Broadcasting have found the reality in Lincoln County is complex. GPB's Stephen Fowler has more.
STEPHEN FOWLER, BYLINE: When a half dozen voting rights advocates filed into the Lincoln County Board of Elections last week, the scene was tense.
DENISE FREEMAN: Objecting to the proposed plan by the Lincoln County Board of Election to close all seven of the county's existing community-based polling locations.
FOWLER: For weeks, the groups gathered hundreds of signatures across the rural county of nearly 6,100 voters, knocking on doors to stop what they said is the latest effort to make voting harder in a state with a long history of racist voting laws. Here's Denise Freeman, a Black pastor, former school board member and opponent of the consolidation.
FREEMAN: It is unconscionable that we would even have anyone to think about closing precincts in 2022. It takes us back to an era that we thought that we would never have to go back to.
FOWLER: But Lincoln County elections director Lilvender Bolton, who is also Black, is frustrated by how she's been portrayed.
LILVENDER BOLTON: I would never do anything to disenfranchise anybody from voting.
FOWLER: This fight in Lincoln County comes as Georgia is the epicenter of a national debate on voting rights. Last year, Republican lawmakers approved a massive overhaul of state election laws. They added new restrictions in the wake of false claims of fraud pushed by former President Trump. But Lincoln County is a different story, Bolton says. She says the decision to open one big polling place instead of seven smaller ones is a resource issue. Most of the existing sites are small. Some are cinder block buildings that are hard to heat and cool.
BOLTON: Well, if I don't consolidate, I need some buildings. That's the reality of it, is they're not here.
FOWLER: And many of the sites just don't see that many voters. An analysis by the Center for Public Integrity and Georgia Public Broadcasting found in the last two statewide elections, most ballots in Lincoln County were cast absentee or before Election Day in one central early voting location. The county is less than one-third Black and gave 68% of its votes to Trump. And the elections board, which includes two Black Democrats, supports the decision to consolidate. All of the concerns over Lincoln County suggest many decisions about voting will be viewed through a lens of growing mistrust, says Gowri Ramachandran with the Brennan Center for Justice.
GOWRI RAMACHANDRAN: People just aren't taking it for granted that, you know, it's going to be done in a fair manner anymore.
FOWLER: Despite the national attention and conflict, Bolton, the elections director, said she has no regrets about her proposal.
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FOWLER: At the elections board meeting last week, residents from rural corners of the county said they need more than just one poll, citing concerns about transportation. The meeting abruptly adjourned after a heated exchange over the plan.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: That's unacceptable to say that. So at this point, I'm going to adjourn the meeting. We have a motion to adjourn the meeting. Thank you. Meeting adjourned.
FOWLER: Another meeting will be called soon to decide the fate of Lincoln County's seven polling places. It's likely to be just as contentious as the last. For NPR News, I'm Stephen Fowler in Lincolnton.
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