Georgia county scraps plan to close most polling places

ATLANTA (AP) — Election officials in a majority black county in rural south Georgia took less than a minute Friday to scrap a proposal to eliminate most of the local polling places, after the plan drew criticism from all over the country.

Concern about the proposal to close seven of the county's nine voting locations was "overwhelming," and is "an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle," the elections board in Randolph County said in a statement.

Voting and civil rights groups applauded the decision but said the episode demonstrates the need to restore Voting Rights Act protections that were tossed out by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.

The elections board, made up of a black woman and a white man, took about 30 seconds to vote down the proposal, county attorney Tommy Coleman said.

After the plan to close the polling places got national news coverage, county officials were inundated with angry emails from all over the country in what Coleman called "a tsunami of attention."

Critics questioned the timing of the changes during the hotly contested governor's race. Georgia's top elections official, Republican Brian Kemp, is running against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is trying to become Georgia's first black governor. Both had urged the county to reject the changes.

An independent consultant recommended the consolidation, saying the seven polling places in question don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The county fired the consultant in a letter sent Wednesday.

The seven polling places had all been used for the May primary and the primary runoff in July, and Coleman said officials were aware of ADA compliance issues.

Randolph County and the Department of Justice entered a settlement agreement in 2012 promising to fix the ADA violations in three years. The settlement included a section on polling place compliance. A grant was used to fix issues in the courthouse, but the other updates didn't happen, Coleman said.

He said he didn't know what would be done to address the ADA compliance problems, saying the county lacks the money to make the necessary fixes.

In emails to supporters Friday, Kemp and Abrams applauded the board's decision.

"Today, the Board of Elections, who are empowered to make these decisions, finally did the right thing and rejected this ill-advised, poorly timed proposal from an independent consultant who is not backed by the Secretary of State's office," Kemp's email says.

County officials asked Kemp's office for guidance after the former county election supervisor abruptly quit earlier this year, Coleman said. Kemp's office and his campaign maintain that the office's elections director suggested several possible consultants. Coleman told The Associated Press repeatedly that Chris Harvey, the elections director for Kemp's office, only recommended Malone.

Abrams' email urged supporters to challenge any voter suppression attempts.

"Decisions to close polling locations are not a matter of cost, but a question of priorities," the email says. "Your right to vote is priceless, and all of us have to keep fighting to protect it."

Civil rights groups and black lawmakers said black voters would be disenfranchised if the voting locations were shuttered. Census figures show the county, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) south of Atlanta, is more than 61 percent black, double the statewide percentage.

The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia sent a joint letter Wednesday to election officials in all 159 Georgia counties, urging them to avoid polling place changes that could disenfranchise voters.

On Thursday, leaders of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus strongly urged the county to keep them open. In a letter to Randolph County officials, the congressional group called it "a deliberate effort to disenfranchise an emerging and engaged demographic."

The ACLU of Georgia said in a news release after the vote that the situation "demonstrates clearly the need to reinstate the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act," which required "historically-discriminatory states such as Georgia to obtain preapproval from a U.S. court or the U.S. Department of Justice before enacting any election changes to ensure that proposed changes would not discriminate against protected minorities."

ACLU of Georgia director Andrea Young said the organization plans to meet with Randolph County residents on Wednesday and will continue to monitor that and other counties. The county should fix any ADA compliance issues at the polling places, she said.

"There are people in the community who can make these repairs, probably for less than they paid the consultant," she said.