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Citing population loss, old facilities, Alabama counties continue to cut voting precincts

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The number of voting precincts in central Alabama’s Bullock County was cut almost in half this year, leaving eight in its 615 square miles as counties around the state continue to trim polling sites.

County officials shut seven of 15 precincts to save money and in response to population shifts.

“(It was) to cut costs,” Bullock County Commission Chairman Alonza Ellis Jr. told Alabama Daily News. “Our population in the rural area has dwindled, and we consolidated to try to cut back and save some money.”

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

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

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

Decisions about polling places in Alabama are up to county officials. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, eliminated the requirement for any changes in voting procedures in Alabama and several other states to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.

While many of the counties shedding polling sites are rural and predominately black, they’re not the only ones.

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

Shelby County Community Services Manager Shelli Davis told Alabama Daily News the recent closures were in part because of staffing issues.

“It’s been difficult to find poll workers,” Davis said.

 At a few sites, there were complaints about accessibility. 

Other counties have said they closed polling sites for a variety of reasons. In east Alabama’s Chambers County, officials said inadequate polling sites, some without running water, have been closed. 

In north Alabama’s Morgan County, five sites in public schools were closed prior to 2018 at the request of school officials citing security concerns, Birmingham previously reported.

Counting and comparing precincts from 2010 to 2022 election result data shows a total loss of 133 precincts statewide. Nine counties have added a total of 22 precincts.

‘Anti-voter measure’

States nationwide have made similar moves since the Shelby decision. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution reported Georgia county election boards closed 214 precincts across the state between 2012 and 2018, nearly 8% of the state’s polling places.

In a 2021 report to the U.S. House Committee on the Judiciary on why the Voting Rights Act should be restored, the Southern Poverty Law Center highlighted precinct closures in Alabama.

“Since (the Shelby County decision), Alabama has closed, consolidated, or changed dozens of polling places across the State, predominantly targeting poor, rural, and Black neighborhoods,” the report said.  “Previously, any locality subject to preclearance which planned to alter a polling location had to both provide sufficient notice to impacted voters and satisfy preclearance.”

“The state of Alabama has disproportionately closed polling places in Black communities, frequently with little or no notice or justification, forcing voters to navigate additional barriers to exercise their fundamental right to vote,” Liza Weisberg, voting rights staff attorney with SPLC, told Alabama Daily News. “When polling places are shut down, voters are often forced to wait in long lines or travel long distances to cast their ballots.

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

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill strongly pushed back on the notion that polling place closures amount to voter suppression, pointing to record participation in recent years.

“We don’t have any polling places that are farther than 20 minutes from anybody’s home in the state. Nobody has to go farther than 20 minutes to get to a polling site,” Merrill said.

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

Merrill said while his office provides consulting for any county that asks about altering precincts, it is ultimately a local decision.

“Those decisions are best left up to local elected officials because they know their people and they know their areas.”

In Bullock County, the remaining polling sites include churches and volunteer fire departments.

“It is a little inconvenient for some people, but we had some precincts way out in the rural areas where you might get 30 or 40 voters, if that many, depending on what election it was,” Elliss, the County Commission chairman said. “And you’ve got all these employees sitting there all day.” 

One of the closed precincts saw 51 voters during the November 2020 presidential election, according to records.

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

“It was a little confusing, we lost some voters,” he said. “Some went to places they weren’t supposed to vote anymore. They were supposed to go somewhere else and said, ‘I’m not going that far out.’”  

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