Georgia Candidates Decry Plan to Close Voting Sites in Mostly Black County

| AUG 20, 2018 | 8:17 PM

REUTERS/Chris Aluka Berry/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A plan to close most polling places in a predominantly black Georgia county ahead of November’s elections is drawing opposition from the state's gubernatorial candidates and voting rights activists, who deem it blatant voter suppression.

The two-member local elections board is expected to vote on Friday on a proposal to shutter seven of nine polling sites in rural Randolph County, located in southwest Georgia, where roughly 60 percent of the 7,800 residents are black.

The board members have said the voting sites violate federal disabilities law because they are not wheelchair accessible.

Both Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee who is seeking to become the first female African-American governor in U.S. history, and Republican candidate Brian Kemp, who is white and serves as Georgia's secretary of state, urged county officials to drop the plan.

“Although state law gives localities broad authority in setting precinct boundaries and polling locations, we strongly urged local officials to abandon this effort and focus on preparing for a secure, accessible, and fair election for voters this November,” Kemp said in a statement.

Todd Black, the county’s elections director, did not respond on Monday to calls or an email seeking comment.

Black is white and the other board member is African-American, according to Sean Young, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia, who attended the board’s meeting on Thursday when the closure proposal was discussed.

Voting rights could become a flashpoint in the governor’s race, as Abrams seeks to turn out more African-American voters in the state’s rural areas, particularly in a series of counties known as the “Black Belt” mostly south of Atlanta.

In the past, she has criticized Kemp as an architect of voter suppression tactics, an accusation he has denied.

FILE PHOTO: Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp speaks with visitors to the state capitol about the “SEC primary” involving a group of southern states voting next month in Atlanta, Georgia February 24, 2016. REUTERS/Letitia Stein/File Photo

“Every Georgian in every county deserves to have their voice represented at the voting booth and in our government,” said Abrams, a former Democratic House minority leader in Georgia’s legislature and founder of the New Georgia Project, a voting rights group.

Kemp has accused that group of voter fraud, which it denied.

The Washington-based Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law on Sunday sent a letter to the Randolph County elections board threatening to sue if the closures go ahead.

“We are deeply troubled by this proposal which would impair the ability of African-Americans, particularly in low-income areas, to reach the polls,” Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Committee, said in a telephone interview on Monday.

Clarke said some of the proposed closures are in areas with little or no public transportation, leaving voters miles from voting sites with no realistic way of reaching them.

(Reporting by Tim Reid; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Bill Trott)