Citing population loss, old settlements, Alabama counties continue to shrink electoral districts

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The number of electoral precincts in Bullock County, central Alabama, has been cut nearly in half this year, leaving eight of its 615 square miles as counties across the state continue to cut offices for vote.

County officials closed seven of 15 precincts to save money and in response to population changes.

“(It was) to cut costs,” Alonza Ellis Jr., chairwoman of the Bullock County commission, told Alabama Daily News. “Our population in the rural area has gone down and we’ve banded together to try to reduce and save money.”

The county estimates it will save several thousand dollars per election.

“…You hate it, but it’s just what you have to do sometimes,” Ellis said.

Since 2010, 31 Alabama counties have closed 155 polling places, according to an analysis by the Alabama Daily News. That’s an increase of about 100 polling places in 25 counties, as reported by BirminghamWatch in 2018.

Decisions about polling places in Alabama rest with county officials. A 2013 United States Supreme Court decision, Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, eliminated the requirement that any changes to voting procedures in Alabama and several other states be approved by the US Department of Justice.

While many counties dropping polls are rural and predominantly black, they’re not the only ones.

Shelby County near Birmingham has a growing, predominantly white population. It has closed six precincts since 2020 and 10 in total, 21%, since 2010.

Shelby County Community Services Manager Shelli Davis told Alabama Daily News that recent closures were partly due to staffing issues.

“Finding election workers has been difficult,” Davis said.

On a few sites, complaints have been made about accessibility.

Other counties said they closed polling places for various reasons. In Chambers County in eastern Alabama, officials said inadequate polling places, some without running water, had been closed.

In Morgan County in northern Alabama, five public school sites were closed before 2018 at the behest of school officials citing safety concerns, Birmingham previously reported.

The precinct count and comparison of election results from 2010 to 2022 shows a total loss of 133 precincts statewide. Nine counties added a total of 22 constituencies.

“Anti-election measure”

States across the country have taken similar steps since the Shelby decision. The Atlanta Constitution-Journal reported Georgia County Election Commissions closed 214 constituencies across the state between 2012 and 2018, nearly 8% of polling places in the state.

In a 2021 report to the US House Committee on the Judiciary on why the Voting Rights Act should be reinstated, the Southern Poverty Law Center pointed to precinct closures in Alabama.

“Since (the Shelby County decision), Alabama has closed, consolidated, or modified dozens of polling places across the state, primarily targeting poor, rural, and black neighborhoods,” the report said. “Previously, any locality subject to preclearance that planned to change a polling location had to both provide sufficient notice to affected voters and satisfy preclearance.”

“The State of Alabama has disproportionately closed polling places in black communities, often with little or no notice or justification, forcing voters to overcome additional hurdles to exercise their basic right to vote,” said Liza Weisberg, voting rights staff attorney at the SPLC, Alabama Daily News. “When polling stations are closed, voters are often forced to queue or walk long distances to vote.

“Anti-election measures like these in Alabama illustrate why we need to restore federal protections to ensure all voters have an equal chance to vote.”

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has strongly pushed back against the idea that closing polls equates to voter suppression, pointing to record turnout in recent years.

“We have no polling place more than 20 minutes from anyone’s home in the state. No one needs to go further than 20 minutes to get to a polling place,” Merrill said.

He added that his office only hears complaints from the SPLC and other progressive groups, not regular voters.

Merrill said that while his office provides guidance to any county that asks about changing precincts, it is ultimately a local decision.

“These decisions are best left to local elected officials because they know their people and they know their regions.”

In Bullock County, the remaining polling places include churches and volunteer firefighters.

“It’s a little inconvenient for some people, but we had some remote neighborhoods in rural areas where you could get 30 or 40 voters, or even as many, depending on which election it was,” said Elliss, the president. of the county commission. “And you have all these employees sitting there all day.”

One of the closed precincts saw 51 voters in the November 2020 presidential election, records show.

Ellis said turnout dropped in the May primary because of the closures, but he thinks people will adjust.

“It was a bit confusing, we lost voters,” he said. “Some went to places where they were no longer supposed to vote. They were supposed to go somewhere else and said, ‘I’m not going that far.’ »

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