NORWOOD, Georgia — In this desolate Georgia town, population 216, the City Hall groundskeeper pried open the doors to the shed of the one-story brick building. Two wooden voting booths, dusty from age and lack of use, were pushed against the wall, a relic of the past.
“Everybody used to go vote right here. You can walk over here any time,” said Willie Hudson, 73, recalling the ease of strolling over from his home to cast his ballot.
The polling location is now shuttered, one of hundreds across the state in recent years, in big cities like Atlanta and tiny towns like Norwood. Hudson, who’s Black and lives two blocks from his local City Hall, now gets in his car and drives five miles to the neighboring town to vote.
The wave of closures came after a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that gutted a key provision of the 1965 Voting Rights Act meant to ensure fair voting practices in nine states and scores of other counties with histories of racially-motivated voter suppression, including Georgia and its Southern neighbors. The high court’s decision said requiring these localities to get federal pre-clearance to change their voting laws and practices was no longer necessary.
Since then, the nine states that were once covered by the law have slashed 2,811 polling locations, most of them in the last four years, according to an investigation by VICE News. Three still require voters to meet strict criteria for mail-in ballots. Those numbers mirror a nationwide trend, where nearly 21,000 polling locations shuttered across the country between 2016 and 2020, partly in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The issue of voting access is at the forefront of the upcoming elections, especially in Georgia, which historically trends Republican but has become a key battleground state this year. Polls show former Vice President Joe Biden neck and neck with President Donald Trump. Scenes of winding lines of people waiting up to eight hours to cast their ballots at early voting sites have raised fresh allegations of voter suppression in a state with a long legacy of racism. It’s also raised concerns that the lines could be even longer on Election Day.
Economic considerations have largely driven the elimination of polling sites, especially in impoverished parts of rural Georgia. Freed from needing federal approval to change their voting practices, cash-strapped counties, some of them run by Black leaders, stopped investing in maintaining the sites, focusing instead on early voting.
Operating fewer voting locations requires fewer poll workers, less equipment and less oversight. In addition, a renewed focus on disability access has meant many churches—favored spots for voting locations—are no longer suitable. Schoolhouses, churches, and city halls that once served as voting sites now sit empty across the state.
“The quality of the voting experience is a measure of which ZIP code you live in, and that’s just unfair,” said Georgia civil rights attorney Francys Johnson. “It is very much a racial issue. Budgets are based on priorities. It is not a priority for those in power for everyone to vote.”
Underlying dynamics make the situation especially complex.
Many of the polling locations that shuttered were in predominantly white churches in rural Georgia communities with a legacy of racism. Some Black leaders say their constituents don’t feel comfortable voting there and prefer traveling a few extra miles to cast their ballot in a government building.
“A lot of Black people, they aren’t going to go [to the white churches]. I am just being real. That’s why I say consolidating locations is the best thing that ever happened, because it’s in a government building,” said Robert Henderson, one of two Black commissioners in rural Butts County, about an hour outside Atlanta.
Rural counties have seen some of the highest percentage of polling-location closures. Unlike in metropolitan Atlanta, voters are largely casting their early ballots in less than 30 minutes. But fewer locations means voters without access to a car have longer distances to travel, and little to no public transportation to get there.
In McDuffie, two hours from Atlanta, local officials have eliminated 8 of the county’s 10 polling sites in order to save money.
The consolidation was voted on by the county board of elections and carried out by Phyllis Brooks, the county’s election’s director. She has an unusual history; when she started in the position 29 years ago, she had no obvious qualifications—she was an X-ray technician and served in the Army before that.
Brooks said when she was interviewed for the job, she was asked one question—how she would respond if someone called her the N-word. Her response was short and to the point: “I’m still Black. And I hear these folks call me worse names than that.”
Brooks got the job.
Now, she’s presiding over a polling location at the high school she couldn’t attend as a kid because it was segregated. Brooks says the county had no choice but to consolidate polling locations, because they were too small, lacked heating and air conditioning, or didn’t comply with disability-access laws. But she supports the move.
“There’s vote-by-mail. There’s 16 days of early voting,” she said. “Those who want to vote will find a way to vote.”
The 1965 Voting Rights Act was one of the triumphs of the civil rights era, an aggressive effort to address measures designed to deny Black people, and later Latinos and Native Americans, the right to vote. In gutting a key section of the law, the high court signaled that the civil rights legislation had worked and voter suppression was largely a thing of the past. Critics of the decision worried it would open the door to just that.
Since that ruling, Arizona has eliminated 46% of its polling sites; Mississippi, 13%; Georgia, 12%; Virginia, 11%; Texas, 10%; South Carolina, 9%; Louisiana, 8%; and Alabama, 5%. Alaska, which had for decades suppressed the vote of Alaska Natives, cut 16%. (This data accounts for Election Day voting booths rather than early-voting sites.)
While some states like California and New Jersey have eliminated thousands of voting sites in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve also aggressively expanded mail-in voting. California, which eliminated 10,119 locations, or 73%, offset that by sending absentee ballots to all 21 million registered voters for the first time this election cycle.
By contrast, Mississippi requires both the absentee ballot application and the ballot itself to be witnessed and signed by a notary or public official. Texas and Louisiana also require voters to meet strict criteria in order to vote by mail, such as being elderly, disabled, or living outside the country.
Georgia’s Republican secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, decided against mailing absentee ballot applications to voters for the November election—despite doing so in the primary due to the pandemic—because he said it was too impractical and expensive. After a protracted battle with voting rights groups, Raffensperger eventually created an online portal for people to apply for an absentee ballot.
The elimination of voting precincts has taken place around the state, across racial lines. Some of the most dramatic decreases happened in counties with an overwhelming white population.
Still, the impact of fewer voting sites has hit nonwhite communities hardest, especially in metro Atlanta. Part of the reason has to do with simple math. Since 2012, Georgia’s voter rolls have grown by around 2 million people, driven by a surge of nonwhite registered voters in metro Atlanta. Over the same time period, the state’s four biggest counties that comprise the Atlanta area have cut 54, or 7%, of their polling locations.
An analysis by VICE News found that the number of active voters per polling place in Georgia's four most-populated counties averaged 3,271 per location, up from 2,402 in 2012. By contrast, the statewide average is 2,965 active voters per location.
Also driving a greater number of people to the polls are fears that absentee ballots won’t be counted, due to President Trump’s repeated and unfounded assertions that mail-in voting is “rigged.” Many voters who requested absentee ballots are instead showing up to the polls to vote in person.
Poll workers report spending 90% of their time dealing with these voters, Vasu Abhiraman, policy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union, told the Dekalb County Board of Commissioners on Tuesday. Dekalb is the fourth-most-populous county in the state and home to many of the viral videos showing wildly long lines of voters waiting to cast their ballots.
“That’s the bottleneck,” Abhiraman said. “Georgia is going to see a surge of voters like it’s never seen before in its history. And if this bottleneck is present [on Election Day], we are likely to see some real issues and some really long lines.”
Gov. Brian Kemp’s history has fueled concerns of voter suppression.
As secretary of state—and while running for governor in 2018—Kemp removed 560,000 Georgians from the polls—8 percent of the state’s registered voters—because they had skipped too many elections. Kemp said that by weeding out infrequent voters, he was safeguarding the election against fraud. Subsequent reporting found that around 107,000 of those people would have been eligible to vote, and that Black voters were affected at a disproportionate rate compared to white voters.
He also spearheaded the state’s “exact match” law, which suspends a person’s voting status if the names on their government IDs don’t exactly match their names on voter rolls, including hyphens and accent marks. The state has largely abandoned the policy after the courts ruled that it could disproportionately disenfranchise minorities.
And Kemp encouraged counties to eliminate voting locations. A how-to guide issued by his office in 2015 details strategies for closing polling locations to show “how the change can benefit voters and the public interest.” The document twice points out that counties no longer need to get federal approval to close precincts because of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2013 decision Shelby v. Holder.
Butts County—perhaps best known as a backdrop to the Netflix series “Stranger Things” —is emblematic of the problems, and also complexities, of eliminating voting locations.
The number of registered voters in the county has ballooned from around 12,000 to 17,500 since 2016. There is just one place for the voters to cast their ballot—at the administration building in the city center. The elections commission eliminated the outlying four sites in 2017, billing it as a money-saving measure.
The response to the consolidations didn’t play out along expected racial lines. While civil rights activists have raised alarm bells about the consolidation of voting locations as a form of voter suppression, the only county commissioner to express concerns about the move was Russ Crumbley, who is white and Republican.
“We should be making it easy for people to vote,” Crumbley said. “Some of the elderly people live in rural areas and it’s harder for them to get to town to vote.”
But Henderson, one of the Black commissioners, praised the consolidation of voting sites. “With a 23,000 population, why do we want to scatter them around the county?” he said. “I don’t trust the system anyway. I think if you got it under one roof, you’re better off.”
Commissioner Keith Douglas, who is also Black, supported the move—but is now having second thoughts. “Looking at it now, it might not have been a good idea to consolidate into one,” he said. “There wasn’t a study committee done; I would look into doing it again based on the study committee.”