The American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia has sent a letter to the Irwin County Board of Elections and Registration demanding that they shelve plans to slash the number of polling places in a way that would make it significantly more difficult for African American and low-income voters to cast a ballot. One proposal under consideration would close six polling places, including the polling place in African-American majority Ocilla, and put the only two remaining polling places in overwhelmingly white areas.
“These measures appear to directly target African American voters and would make it significantly more difficult for African American and/or lower-income voters to cast a ballot,” the letter states. “By targeting Ocilla — which has the highest concentration of African Americans anywhere in Irwin County… the first proposal has the effect, if not the intent, of making it disproportionately harder for African Americans to exercise their fundamental right to vote. Thus, this measure likely violates Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and potentially the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution as well. It must be rejected.”
Under the Board’s proposal, the only two remaining polling places left open would be located in Irwinville, which is 96% white and home to the Jefferson Davis Memorial Historic Site, and in the east side of Irwin County, which is also largely white. The ACLU noted that the proposal cannot be defended as a necessary cost-saving measure, as it is at odds with a report issued by the nonpartisan Association of County Commissioners, which recommended one polling place be left “in or near” Ocilla.
“These are deeply concerning proposals that would severely restrict the ability of low-income and minority voters in Irwin County to participate in our democracy,” said ACLU of Georgia Legal Director Sean J. Young. “There is simply no justification for closing the only polling place in Irwin County’s African-American majority community, while keeping polling locations in white areas open. We’re hopeful that when local officials understand the harmful impact these proposals would have — and the potential litigation that could ensue – they will set them aside and work with us to ensure that all voters in Irwin County have fair and equal access to the ballot box.”
The letter also raises concerns about a second proposal under consideration to consolidate all eight Irwin County polling places to a single location in Ocilla. This would cause long lines and make it harder for low-income voters without vehicles to get to the polls.
“Georgia has a long and ugly history of racially motivated attempts to restrict voting rights and silence the voices of minority voters – efforts that the ACLU has fought at every turn,” said ACLU of Georgia Executive Director Andrea Young. “Just as we have for the past five decades, the ACLU of Georgia will continue to defend the voting rights of all Georgians, whenever and wherever they are threatened.”
Irwin County is a sparsely populated county in which the overwhelming majority of black voters are concentrated in the county seat of Ocilla. To address budgetary issues, the Association of County Commissioners of Georgia issued a report in December 2016 with recommendations to the Irwin County Board of Commissioners on how to cut costs. The report, among other measures, recommends reducing the number of polling locations from 8 to 3–leaving one polling place in Irwinville, one in Ocilla, and another in the east of the county.
Instead of implementing the recommendations in this independent report, the Board of Elections has proposed two alternative polling configurations – both of which would make it more difficult for African Americans and/or lower income voters to get to the polls.
Changes to polling place locations can be approved by the three-member Irwin County Board of Elections and Registration, and do not need to go through the County Commission. The two proposals to which the ACLU has objected have been presented as options but not formally introduced. The Board has said it will notify citizens via the local newspaper 10 days before taking a vote on the subject.
During the legislative session, the ACLU of Georgia successfully worked to stop a partisan gerrymandering bill that would have weakened the voting power of minority communities.