868 fewer places to vote

Ari Berman points out that There Are 868 Fewer Places to Vote in 2016 Because the Supreme Court Gutted the Voting Rights Act.

What does it mean when there are fewer places to vote? Longer lines. What do longer lines do? Suppress voting.

When Aracely Calderon, a naturalized US citizen from Guatemala, went to vote in downtown Phoenix just before the polls closed in Arizona’s March 22 presidential primary, there were more than 700 people in a line stretching four city blocks. She waited in line for five hours, becoming the last voter in the state to cast a ballot at 12:12 am. “I’m here to exercise my right to vote,” she said shortly before midnight, explaining why she stayed in line. Others left without voting because they didn’t have four or five hours to spare.

The lines were so long because Republican election officials in Phoenix’s Maricopa County, the largest in the state, reduced the number of polling places by 70 percent from 2012 to 2016, from 200 to just 60—one polling place per 21,000 registered voters. Previously, Maricopa County would have needed federal approval to reduce the number of polling sites, because Arizona was one of 16 states where jurisdictions with a long history of discrimination had to submit their voting changes under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. This part of the VRA blocked 3,000 discriminatory voting changes from 1965 to 2013. That changed when the Supreme Court gutted the law in the June 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision.

Dirty, isn’t it.

Arizona, the poster child for voting problems in the primary, closed the highest percentage of polling places in the study. “Almost every county in the state reduced polling places in advance of the 2016 election and almost every county closed polling places on a massive scale, resulting in 212 fewer polling places,” says the report (emphasis in original). Tucson’s Pima County—the second largest in the state, which is 35 percent Latino and leans Democratic—“is the nation’s biggest closer of polling places,” from 280 in 2012 to 218 in 2016.

Many of these counties have been hot spots for voting discrimination. Cochise County, on the Mexico border, which is 30 percent Latino, was sued by the Justice Department in 2006 failing to print election materials in Spanish or have Spanish-speaking poll workers, in violation of the VRA. Today, the county “is the nation’s biggest closer by percentage,” having shuttered 63 percent of its voting locations since Shelby. There will be only 18 polling places for 130,000 residents in 2016, down from 49 polling places in 2012.

Texas has closed more than 400.

Medina County, a heavily Republican area in South Texas, closed a polling place in the town of Natalia, which is 75 percent Latino and the only Democratic-leaning part of the county. “We’ve had a polling place for at least the last six decades,” Emilio Flores, a local activist and registered Republican, told me. When Flores asked the county elections administrator, Patricia Barton, how low-income and disabled Latino voters were supposed to vote without a polling place in their town, he said she told him, “If you think it’s such a big issue, why don’t you shuttle them yourself?” Last week the county commission approved a polling place in Natalia for Election Day after local activists like Flores raised alarms, but Medina County will have only eight polling places in 2016, down from 14 in 2012.

In June 2013, Percy Bland was elected as the first black mayor of Meridian, Mississippi, where the Ku Klux Klan abducted the civil rights workers James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Mickey Schwerner during Freedom Summer in 1964. A month after Bland’s election the Supreme Court gutted the VRA, and in 2015 the majority-white board of elections in Lauderdale County closed seven polling places over objections from the mayor. That included eliminating a polling place at the historic Mt. Olive Baptist Church, a major site during the civil-rights movement, as the place where the singer Pete Seeger announced that the bodies of Chaney, Goodman, and Schwerner had been discovered after they were missing for 44 days. “In an effort to honor the legacy of those who paid the ultimate sacrifice in order that we enjoy our civil rights, we proudly offer our historic facilities [as a polling site],” said church spokesman Ronald Turner.

“Things have changed dramatically” in the South, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the Shelby decision. “The tests and devices that blocked ballot access have been forbidden nationwide for over 40 years.” But as we’re seeing clearly in 2016, the states previously covered by the VRA keep finding new ways to undermine the right to vote.

Easy for John Roberts to say.

3 Responses to “868 fewer places to vote”