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Precincts in Georgia’s Fulton County (Atlanta) will remain unchanged for now after the county reversed a plan that community advocates say would create problems for many African-American voters. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has more:
Fulton County officials on Monday reversed a decision that would have changed polling locations in several majority African-American precincts, effectively bowing to the wishes of community advocates concerned about voter confusion ahead of municipal elections in November.
The decision came after the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sued the county Board of Registration and Elections claiming it did not give the public enough notice about the changes before it initially voted in mid-July to approve them.
“We heard from members of the public that they would be very inconvenienced and disrupted by certain changes,” said Mary Carole Cooney, the chairwoman of the elections board. “We decided that we would not change anything prior to the November election. We can always revisit that” after the election is complete, she said.
The changes in question would have affected more than 5,500 voters in predominately African-American communities, including those who vote at Harper Archer Middle and Towns Elementary schools in the Adamsville area; at the John Birdine neighborhood facility; and at Fickett Elementary School in southwest Atlanta.
The County’s proposed changes were designed to update the precinct map in light of changes in voter behavior – mostly, the increase in early voting – but there were concerns that closing precincts at this time would create confusion and disadvantage voters who needed assistance to get to – and vote at – the polls:
County officials said they proposed the changes to make it easier for people to figure out where to vote and to reflect a decline in Election Day usage of the precincts as the popularity of early voting has surged across Fulton.
Advocates, however, had warned that those changes in particular could make it harder for some people to vote. In a letter to the board in July, the national Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, on behalf of several Georgia groups, said they believed officials had not fully considered “the significant burden and negative, disparate impact the closure of these polling locations will have on low-income and minority voters.”
Other community advocates told the board Monday that they felt officials needed to talk more with neighbors and other residents who vote at the locations in question. They said officials had not fully considered the impact on voters — including the elderly — who typically take public transportation or need help getting to the polls in order to cast their ballots.
“Let’s just leave it the way it is now to lessen the confusion,” said Melissa Wardley, who teaches civics classes in the Adamsville area. Residents understand the importance of voting, she said, but making the changes now was “just too soon.”
“When you change the polling locations,” she said, “that makes it twice as hard to get people out.”
Fulton County’s experience is illustrative of the kinds of changes other communities may need to consider as voters as a whole begin to rely less and less on traditional neighborhood polling places. It’s tempting to look at changing participation data and conclude that many existing precincts simply have too few voters to justify continuing to staff them – but for the voters who still do use them, a sudden change in polling place could result in them not voting at all. The step the County originally skipped – which it looks like they’ll do now – is talking to voters in the community to explain why change might be necessary and identify solutions that will respond to voting changes without leaving some voters behind. That doesn’t mean the problems will disappear – the County may still conclude that it cannot afford to support some low-turnout precincts – but at least any changes made will be based both on numbers AND face-to-face feedback from the community and designed to reflect both. It’s easier said than done, but it’s important to do anyway.
Kudos to Fulton for recognizing these changes needed more time and discussion. Here’s hoping that these conversations can identify a solution that serves everyone best. Stay tuned …