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Jamil Smith: Lessons From a Botched Voter Suppression Scheme

A rural, majority-black Georgia county decided not to close most of its polling sites, thwarting one of many Republican efforts to game democracy

Nov. 6, 2012 - Atlanta, GA, USA - Voters prepare to cast their ballot at Perkerson Park in the Capitol View neighborhood of Southwest Atlanta, Georgia, Tuesday, November 6, 2012. Just before lunch, there was a steady flow of voters, but lines were very short. (Credit Image: © Ben Gray/TNS/ZUMAPRESS.com)

Voters prepare to cast their ballot at Perkerson Park in the Capitol View neighborhood of Southwest Atlanta, Georgia.

Ben Gray/TNS/ZUMAPRESS.com

Cuthbert is the most populous city in Randolph County, Georgia. Closer to Alabama than to Atlanta, fewer than 4,000 people live in the town. For the past week or so, Cuthbert became Voter Suppression Central, the latest front in the Republican war on election rights.

“It filled up the Econo Lodge,” Randolph County attorney Tommy Coleman tells me by phone, referring to the swarm of national press that arrived in Cuthbert to cover the story. “You know, I think they all visited Church’s Fried Chicken. It’s a small town. I said [last week], ‘Sheriff, this is a hell of a way to have economic development.’”

That ended Friday, when the county’s Board of Elections voted down political consultant Michael Malone’s absurd proposal to close seven of Randolph’s nine polling locations. Some voters would have had to travel dozens of miles to reach the ballot box if Malone had his way, and do so in a county where public transportation is nonexistent. More than 60 percent of Randolph County’s residents are black, more than 30 percent live below the poverty line and most of its voters chose Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. More recently, Stacey Abrams, a black woman, has been nominated for governor, for the first time in American history, in any state. Malone claimed his proposal was about access for people with disabilities to polling places. But common sense tells us what this was really about: voter suppression.

Kristen Clarke, president and executive director of the Lawyers’ Commission for Civil Rights Under Law — which had threatened legal action if Malone’s proposal had been adopted — tells Rolling Stone that she was “pleased that officials saw fit to bow both to the needs of the electorate and the dictates of the law in rejecting this poorly conceived plan to shutter polling sites.” Abrams, the state’s historic gubernatorial candidate, released a statement calling the rejection of Malone’s proposal a “triumph.”

Malone was never able to justify the sudden urgency of his proposal. The consultant was hired by the county back in April to help run its primary elections and, somehow, he felt the need to wait until Abrams had been nominated — opposite his Republican ally Brian Kemp, the Georgia secretary of state who has disenfranchised more voters than he has registered — to suggest the drastic measure of closing seven of the nine Randolph polling locations.

But even though Malone’s effort failed, Randolph County went through a bit of hell as this controversy raged. Other aspiring vote suppressors may want to take heed of what Coleman had to say in the wake of Friday’s vote.

Coleman, who acts as a legal adviser to the county’s board of elections, strongly opposed the measure that Malone put forth. “It was clear to me early on,” Coleman tells me in a gentlemanly Georgia drawl. “I said [to the board members, Michele Graham and J. Scott Peavy], ‘You guys are on the losing side of this matter. You just need to vote ‘no’ and go home.’” The two-member board did just that — both voted to kill Malone’s proposal.

Coleman says that the board had nothing to do with Malone’s idea. “There was a pretty large outcry in the community,” he says, adding that this happening months before a major election heightened the scrutiny of the county. “The position taken was that the deal was already done and they had decided to make this change. Which was not the case.”

In fact, he says,  normal procedure was followed: “People propose things. There’s a public hearing; the public has a right to input and then the Board of Elections votes. I don’t know what else I could have done.” Coleman sounded both exasperated and protective of the two nonpartisan board members who, he claims, “were stressed, in a mild way of putting it” due to threats and attacks they received. “The sixth smallest county in our state, with all these national press people looking at them. It’s a bit frightening, I’m afraid, for people who are not used to that kind of thing.”

Efforts to silence black and Hispanic voters will surely continue to be a Republican priority this November and beyond. Fourteen states instituted new restrictions in time for the 2016 election, and three more — Arkansas, Missouri and North Dakota — have since put voter-ID laws in place. The GOP will continue to do this as long as it stays beholden to policy that does the work of white supremacy, thereby repelling African American audiences in particular. Knowing that they can’t put up a platform that would win us over, people like Malone keep attempting to violate what should be American electoral norms. And why not? Without any functional legislation to protect voting rights, we are left to hope that we, too, have a Tommy Coleman, Michele Graham and J. Scott Peavy to maintain equal access to the ballot box.

Rather than a sign of overall improvement, this defeated proposal in Georgia should be a warning. Malone’s sloppiness became a national embarrassment, and thus signaled to localities throughout the nation to be especially vigilant. The blatant attack on voting rights in Randolph County was stopped, but there will surely be localities that acquiesce quietly to the Republican desire to limit the participation of certain constituencies. Since the Supreme Court crippled the Voting Rights Act in 2013, allowing states to do just what Malone attempted — make changes to voting laws without federal oversight to prevent racial discrimination — we remain helplessly dependent upon local government structures functioning as well as Randolph County’s did.

As for Malone? Coleman fired him two days before the Friday vote, never having met him in person. “I wouldn’t know him if he walked in and hit me in the nose. You know, he might, after everything that’s happened,” Coleman says with a laugh.

When dealing with vote suppressors, we should expect a fight.

 

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