Voters Have Fewer Polling Places and Less Protection in These States

For the first time in 50 years, voters won’t have the full protections of the Voting Rights Act during a presidential election.
(Photo: Bilgin S. Sasmaz/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
Nov 7, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Rebecca McCray is a staff writer covering social justice. She is based in New York.

For more than 50 years, federal personnel have kept an eye out for voter suppression in the states. Justice Department officials announced Monday that this year, more than 500 federal officials will be deployed to monitor polling sites across 28 states when Americans cast their ballots on Nov. 8.

“The bedrock of our democracy is the right to vote, and the Department of Justice works tirelessly to uphold that right not only on Election Day, but every day,” Attorney General Loretta Lynch said in a statement.

Though it might sound like a lot of federal oversight, there will be roughly one-third fewer poll monitors and observers this year than there were during the 2012 presidential election. It’s one of many changes that spring from a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision that struck down a key section of the Voting Rights Act. The decision in Shelby County v. Holder makes this the first presidential election since the law’s passage in 1965 in which voters won’t enjoy the act’s full protections against discrimination—and that makes advocates nervous.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen,” Scott Simpson of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights told TakePart. “I don’t see how you can look at this election with clear eyes and not say we have a problem with voter discrimination in this country.”

RELATED: How America Is Backtracking on Voting Rights

Simpson has had his eye on another side effect of the Shelby County decision this election: the closure of hundreds of polling places across seven states. In a study of nearly 400 counties in Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas, and Mississippi, Simpson, the lead author, found the number of polling places has dropped 16 percent since 2013. In total, the study, published on Nov. 4, found that voters will have 868 fewer polling locations in these counties—counties that were once covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act and which have a documented history of voter discrimination—than they have had in past elections.

Section 5 required jurisdictions with a history of voter discrimination to demonstrate that cost savings from polling site closures wouldn’t disadvantage voters of color. But without that provision of the law, the study showed, many jurisdictions have gone forward with massive poll site closures without any oversight or transparency. Texas, for example, has 403 fewer voting locations now than it did prior to the Shelby ruling, and nearly every county in Arizona reduced the number of open polling places.

(Map: The Leadership Conference Education Fund)

“Most of these polling place closures have gone unreported and unchallenged,” said Simpson. “When we lost Section 5, we lost notice and justification for any polling place change or redistricting at the local level. We’re pretty much in the dark.”

There are plenty of nondiscriminatory reasons for jurisdictions to close polling sites. Some might choose to close voting locations after successfully introducing vote-by-mail or early-voting programs that have reduced polling attendance. With fewer voters showing up in person on Election Day, jurisdictions might reasonably try to save money by shutting down a site. But in the counties reviewed by this study, Simpson said, “that’s not what’s happening...and not in a way that engages any minority communities.”

Without that engagement or transparent discussion of polling place closures, voters may be left waiting in hours-long lines at sites that aren’t equipped to handle the influx from neighboring jurisdictions. With fewer Department of Justice monitors on the ground to observe whether people are being improperly turned away or otherwise having their votes suppressed, improprieties on Election Day are more likely to go undocumented.