In 2013, the Supreme Court of the United States struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act that required southern states to seek federal approval before changing their voting practices or laws. Since then hundreds of polling places have been shut down across states that were formerly part of the Confederacy and Arizona.
A new study from the Leadership Conference Education Fund has found that more than 800 polling places have been closed in areas that the stricken part of the Voting Rights Act used to cover. This is concerning given the other steps these states, under Republican control, have taken to keep turnout low and mostly white.
As the study’s authors write:
There are many reasons to close polling places that have nothing to do with discrimination and this report is not an indictment against all polling place reductions. The enactment of early voting and voting by mail both make consolidating polling places an attractive option for election officials who must contend with tightening budgets and there are ways to ensure that reductions are done in concert with public participation and without disadvantaging communities. But prior to the Shelby decision there was a process to ensure that jurisdictions known to engage in voting discrimination weren’t using budget cuts or voter modernization as cover to disenfranchise people of color. With Section 5 in place, jurisdictions would have to demonstrate that saving money by making changes to polling places did not disenfranchise voters of color. In a world without Section 5, that process—that protection for minority voters—has ceased.
If the VRA was still fully-functional, these closures could have very well been approved. With the advent of early voting and increased ballot access for absentee voting, consolidation of polling places is not necessarily pernicious.
Yet, the VRA also required these states to go to great lengths to inform voters of these changes. Officials would have had to consult with leaders in minority communities in the affected areas to ensure that no voters would be disenfranchised. This no longer happens, and voters aren’t even informed by the state. Today, voters may go to their former polling place to find that it’s been closed.
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