CUTHBERT, Ga. – Some residents of this town are old enough to remember when government officials would intimidate and punish black residents for trying to exercise the right to vote. Others, having come of age when a black man was president, thought the days of such brazen discrimination were long past.
But nearly everyone saw a recent proposal to close more than two-thirds of the polling places in Randolph County, a predominantly black community in southwestern Georgia, as a reminder of the lingering traces of the state’s history of voter suppression.
After a week of ferocious pushback — including two packed town hall meetings in which residents berated local elections officials, as well as warning letters, threats of lawsuits by civil rights groups and national media coverage — county officials fired the consultant who came up with the plan.
Then on Friday morning, the Randolph County Board of Elections voted down the proposal to close seven of its nine polling locations, saying no changes would be made. The meeting of the board lasted no more than five minutes.
“In the United States, the right to vote is sacred,” the board said in a statement, adding that displays of interest and concern have been “overwhelming and … an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle.” It said the board’s only interest was in “making sure elections in Randolph County are fair and efficient.”
Activists and residents applauded the action and said that they would continue to meet and share information to make sure their voting rights were not eroded.
In an interview Thursday ahead of the board’s vote, Tommy Coleman, the Randolph County attorney, said: “I’m quite sure the Board of Elections didn’t intend to disenfranchise any voters. … This morphed into something that wasn’t their intention.”
Coleman sent a letter to the consultant who came up with the plan, Michael Malone, advising him to “take no further action or carry out any services on behalf of the Board of Elections.” Malone had advised closing the facilities because, he said, they did not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
Residents and activists criticized the Board of Elections for even entertaining such a proposal, now less than three months before a crucial midterm election in which Democrat Stacey Abrams is a strong contender to become the nation’s first black female governor.
Her challenger, Republican Brian Kemp, is the secretary of state and Georgia’s chief elections official. Kemp, who has supported and enforced tougher voter registration and identification laws, has dismissed calls to step down from overseeing his own election.
Malone was on a short list of referrals that the secretary of state’s office sent to Randolph County officials, who needed someone to step in and run their elections after the county supervisor quit in the spring. Malone, who has contributed to Kemp’s campaign, oversaw the May primary and last month’s runoff elections.
Kemp urged the County Board to abandon the planned closures before the Friday meeting. On Thursday, state elections director Chris Harvey, who works for the secretary of state’s office, sent a letter to the county elections board chairman berating him for reaching out to ask for advice and for letting the matter to get out of hand.
“You have created a national media spectacle by seeking to make major changes right before an election and failing to act in a decisive manner that is responsive to the demands of the voters in Randolph County,” Harvey wrote.