Polling site in mostly Black rural Georgia district reopens after residents fight back

Elections officials in a rural Georgia county bowed to pressure from local residents upset over the closure of a polling place in a majority-Black area two years ago, finally agreeing to reopen the site.

Residents of Hazlehurst, a small town about 100 miles west of Savannah banded together after the elections board in Jeff Davis County — named for president of the Confederacy Jefferson Davis — shuttered the voting site in August 2017. They pressured local leaders to reconsider the move, circulating petitions and drafting pre-lawsuit demands as part of a grassroots fight to make their voices heard, The Associated Press reported.

“We couldn’t understand or see why the poll was closed,” local woman Helen Allen told the outlet in a recent interview.

Local officials pointed to budget concerns as their reason for closing and consolidating local precincts. 

“Basically, we looked at the money — the cost savings — and the distance” between polling locations before deciding the county could get by with one less, said Jeff Davis County elections supervisor Christy Riner. However, human rights activists say the closings have had a disproportionate effect on certain communities.

“It’s the minority voter community who are more disadvantaged by these poll closures than anyone else,” Houk explained, “and that raises serious concerns.”

Allen, 67, said she had been casting her ballot at the white clapboard building up the road from her home for the past 37 years before county elections officials shuttered the station and reassigned her polling place. The change was decried by many in the community who wondered how older and disabled residents would to the new polling site.

Us locals began “talking about the hardship and how they didn’t want to go all the way across town,” she added.

Julie Houk, managing counsel for election protection for the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, stated this is something Georgia voters, particularly minorities, have experienced time and time again.

The Peach State faced national scrutiny ahead of the 2018 gubernatorial race between DemocratStacey Abrams, the first Black female nominee for governor, and Republican Brian Kemp, the top elections official at the time as Georgia’s secretary of state. Widespread poll closures were a major cause of concern, including a neighboring rural county’s plans to close seven of its nine polling locations.

Officials in Randolph County, which has also has mostly Black population, initially defended the decision, citing Americans with Disabilities Act accessibility issues. However, they backed off the effort after a “tsunami” of negative attention.

The decision to reopen the Hazlehurst polling place comes less than a year before the 2020 presidential election and two Senate races on the Georgia ballot, AP reported. It was a key personnel change on the county elections board that turned the tide in local residents’ favor.

Allen was prompted to throw her hat in the race after the 2017 poll closure and was ultimately appointed to the board. With her newfound power, she  and other officials reversed the decision and reopened the site in August.