In June, the Supreme Court's Shelby v. Holder decision disarmed Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, freeing nine states – mostly in the South – from having to submit election procedure changes for the Justice Department's approval. The vast majority of voting laws that the department objected to as discriminatory came from towns and counties, rather than the state level. Since the ruling, such localities have seen both quiet changes to election code and also deep uncertainties among civil rights advocates who long relied on this key provision of the Voting Rights Act.
The state of Georgia alone offers many examples. The city of Athens, for instance, is considering a proposal to eliminate nearly half of its 24 polling sites in favor of creating two early voting centers – both located inside police stations. Madelyn Clare Powell, a longtime civil rights activist in Athens, worries that some voters cannot regard police stations as neutral territory. "There is a major intimidation factor here – these police stations are seen by some in the community as hostile territory," says Powell, citing historical tension between white police forces and minority communities in the region. Local activists also fear that the poll closures disproportionally impact neighborhoods with higher shares of minorities and college students, requiring three-hour bus rides for some public-transit dependent voters.
"With the popularity of advance voting, election day lines have subsided and we can serve voters with fewer election day polling places," says Gail Schrader, Athens' Supervisor of Elections and Voter Registration. Schrader also notes that police stations are among the few spaces that could accommodate early voting sites for weeks at a time, and that the proposal could annually save taxpayers tens of thousands of dollars.
Several miles from Athens, heavily rural Greene County implemented a redistricting plan directly following the Shelby ruling. The Justice Department, which blocked another redistricting plan in the same county just last year, had been reviewing the new plan before the Supreme Court ruling, and the ACLU had strongly denounced the plan as discriminatory. In August, the new districts stirred a small demonstration in the town of Greensboro.
Adjacent to Greene County is Morgan County, which in July considered a proposal to eliminate over half of its polling sites. City Councilman Michael Naples believed the plan could disenfranchise low-income, minority voters who lack access to automobiles. "Although [Section 5] preclearance is no longer a requisite, you gentlemen and ladies are still required to have a clear conscience relative to any decisions you make relative to voting," Naples told the Board of Elections in a July meeting. The county ultimately voted to eliminate just over a third of polling sites.
Outside Atlanta, in the suburban community of Druid Hills, Henry Carey – a political science professor at Georgia State University, who has worked observing elections in Haiti, El Salvador, Nicaragua and elsewhere – voted in a special charter school election in August. He was appalled at what he saw: The poll workers were overtly partisan, wearing t-shirts supporting the charter effort up for vote. The polling site was open for only four hours and was in a heavily white neighborhood, although the school district is majority black. "Nowhere on earth have I ever seen such an utterly illegal election," says Carey.
Last month, the NAACP implored Baker County, located in Georgia's southwest corner, to explain the rationale behind a proposal to eliminate four out of five of its polling places. The civil rights group argued the move could hinder voting access across the county – especially for poorer residents who are disproportionately black. Baker County responded with a brief letter simply stating that the plan was still under consideration.
Just days after the Shelby decision, a newspaper in the town of Augusta reported that local officials are considering reintroducing a plan – struck down as discriminatory by federal authorities last year – to shift the city's elections from November to the summertime, when the city's black turnout is typically lower. In 2012, the Justice Department asserted that state officials had not provided a convincing explanation for the date change beyond voter suppression.
Augusta has a long, fraught history with voting. "It's is one of these cities that has continually come up with new strategies to suppress turnout," says Leah Aden, an attorney with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is scrambling to establish a network to discover and challenge problematic voting proposals in the Justice Department's absence. Although the Supreme Court argued that the formula determining Section 5's jurisdiction was outdated, Aden contends that the provision still broadly targeted regions with uniquely recurrent voting issues, enabling authorities to swat down discriminatory proposals before they became law (and thus far harder to challenge).
"It's very hard to keep up with this through case-by-case litigation," says Aden. "But we're going to try."