Since the Supreme Court struck down a key pillar of the Voting Rights Act in 2013, more than a dozen Republican-controlled state legislatures have passed a wave of laws that restrict when, where, and how people can cast a ballot.
They have also, a new report reveals, shut down hundreds of polling places.
A study of nearly 400 counties in Alabama, Arizona, Texas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Mississippi found that those counties collectively reduced the number of polling locations available to voters by at least 16 percent — eliminating more than 860 places. In Arizona, almost every single county shut down voting locations, and more than half of the counties in Louisiana, Texas, and Alabama that provided data to the researchers did so as well.
This sharp reduction — which would have difficult to implement if the Voting Rights Act were still in full force—means that voters in dozens of counties may have to travel a greater distance and wait in a longer line.
Researchers with the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights found that found that the vast majority of the closures happened in areas with a documented history of racial discrimination that used to hold elections under Justice Department supervision. Before the Supreme Court neutered the Voting Rights Act, these states and counties had to clear any voting changes with the federal government— even something as small as closing a single polling place — and prove the change wouldn’t harm voters of color.
Without this federal oversight, counties had a green light to shut down polls as they pleased, and did so on a mass scale. Thanks to the Shelby County v. Holder ruling, voters who used to be able to block such changes before they took effect now have to wait until after an election to sue. By then, the damage has already been done, and the election results cannot be reversed.
Even with a significant uptick in the number of people voting by mail and voting early, cutting Election Day polling places can have a major negative impact on voters.
Ahead of the presidential primary in March, Arizona’s most populous county slashed the number of available polling places from 200 to 60, calling it a “cost-effective” move. The result: five-hour lines, polling places running out of ballots, voters giving up and leaving without voting, and even voters fainting after waiting in the Arizona heat.
Some counties in Indiana cut two-thirds of their polling sites ahead of their primary in May. The state saw long lines and hundreds of voters improperly turned away after polls closed.
With early voting well underway in most states, poll closures are impacting the general election as well.
In North Carolina, 17 counties are providing fewer total early voting hours than they did in 2012, and some of the cuts have been deep. Charlotte’s Mecklenburg County , for example, offered 22 locations for the first day of early voting in 2012. This year, they offered only 10, resulting in lines more than three hours long.
Guilford County, home to a large historically black college, went from having 16 early voting locations in 2012 to just one this year, and voters had to wait several hours to cast a ballot. Turnout in Guilford County over the first few days of early voting was down 85 percent.
Six counties across North Carolina that cut polling locations saw turnout drop by at least 50 percent, and African American voters’ turnout has been disproportionately depressed. Had a federal appeals court not intervened in July — accusing the state of trying to suppress black voters “with almost surgical precision” — North Carolina would have made even deeper cuts to early voting.
Election Day could be even worse for the key swing state, when 12 North Carolina counties formerly covered by the Voting Rights Act will collectively have 27 fewer polling places than they did in 2012.
Though Arizona was hit with lawsuits from the Democratic Party and civil rights groups following its primary election disaster, the state heads into the general election with more than 212 fewer polling locations than it had in the 2012 election. While a combination of court cases, outrage, and media attention forced Maricopa County to open more locations, other counties have slipped under the radar.
Pima County, an area with a high population of Latino and Native American voters, closed 62 locations — more than any county in the country. Cochise County, which has an even larger Latino population, slashed nearly two-thirds of its polling places, and this year will offer only 18 for more than 130,000 residents.
“Texas, Arizona, and Louisiana — each with a nefarious and adaptive history of voting discrimination — have all made alarming reductions in polling places,” the report concludes, noting that had Congress acted on any of the multiple bills introduced to restore the Voting Rights Act, the mass closures could have been prevented.