LINCOLN COUNTY, Ga. — The showdown over voting rights in the U.S. Senate may be over for now. But the issue is still smoldering in a stretch of Northeast Georgia countryside where local officials recently introduced a plan to close seven polling sites and consolidate them into one.
The proposal in Lincoln County has attracted the attention and ire of major voting rights groups and suspicion among some Black residents who say the effort is just the latest example of voter suppression in a state where Republicans recently passed a restrictive new law. Hundreds of upset residents have filed protest petitions that could cause local officials to scale it back.
But local officials say the current polling spots are in need of modernization — and that in a county where about two-thirds of the 7,700 residents are white, the plan is simply an effort to make it easier to manage elections. The remaining site would be located close to the polling place that currently serves the county’s one majority-Black precinct.
“They seem to think that I’m trying to stop Black people from voting,” said the elections director, an African American woman named Lilvender Bolton. She would administer the plan that was under consideration last week by a mostly Republican-appointed board of two Black members and three white ones.
In Georgia, a state where razor-thin voting margins have helped swing the White House and control of the Senate, any effort to change the process of voting has become fiercely contested. And after recent efforts by Republicans in Georgia and around the country to restrict voting, suspicions are high.
For decades, a proposal like Lincoln County’s would have been subject to review from the Department of Justice to determine whether it was discriminatory, a step mandated by the 1965 Voting Rights Act and often referred to as “preclearance.” But this system was effectively gutted by a 2013 Supreme Court decision, Shelby County v. Holder, and has not returned since, despite efforts to revive it like last week’s Senate debate.
David J. Becker, executive director of the Center for Election Innovation & Research, said the failure to reinstitute preclearance this year was a missed opportunity.
Mr. Becker was careful to note that he could not tell whether Lincoln County’s consolidation plan was politically motivated or well-intentioned. But with preclearance, he said, residents of areas like Lincoln County would at least have had a sense that a third party had taken a hard look at whether a proposed change to voting in their community would make it harder for minority groups to vote.
“Preclearance was a stamp of approval that elections officials could use to tamp down exactly this kind of divisive rhetoric that’s going around,” he said.
In 2019, the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights nonprofit based in Washington, issued a report analyzing the areas formerly subject to federal review and found a loss of 1,173 polling places between the 2014 and the 2018 midterm elections.
Fully understanding the “potentially discriminatory impact of these closures,” the report’s authors wrote, would require “precisely the kind” of analysis “that the DOJ conducted under preclearance.”
Even voting rights groups acknowledge that there are sometimes legitimate reasons for closing polling places: Populations shift, and sometimes the way people cast their vote changes, too. More voters may begin choosing to vote by mail or at early voting locations rather than their precinct.
In Lincoln County, Ms. Bolton, the county elections director, argues that the change would make it easier for her to manage Election Day. Her tiny staff is stressed, she said, by the responsibility of setting up and breaking down the complicated electronic voting machines in seven locations spread around the county’s 257 square miles.
The failure of the voting overhaul effort in Washington comes after Republican state lawmakers, in the wake of former President Donald J. Trump’s defeat in 2020, have moved to overhaul election systems in dozens of states, including Georgia, often in the name of protecting against dubious allegations of voter fraud promulgated by Mr. Trump and his allies.
The Georgia legislature has also handed control of some or all appointments to local election boards in six counties to conservative judges or Republican-controlled county commissions.
Given these recent developments, and the long history of racist disenfranchisement of Black voters in the South, some Lincoln County voters say they would be foolish not to suspect that they are being targeted.
“How could you not see it as a pattern?” said Charlie Murray, 68, a Black resident who votes at a nearby church far from the county seat.
“They’re making it harder for people to vote,” said another Black resident, Franklin Sherman, 29, a truck driver who usually votes in the same spot.
Lincoln County was among the six Georgia counties in which the rules for selecting members of the local elections board were recently changed by the state legislature.
County officials originally asked legislators for the change because they wanted to be able to stagger the members’ terms, said Walker T. Norman, the longtime chair of the county commission and a Republican.
Another change — ending the tradition of letting the Democratic and Republican Parties each choose one board member — was prompted by a State Supreme Court ruling, which has been interpreted to hold that private entities cannot appoint members to government bodies, he said.
The legislation mandating the changes was sponsored by State Senator Lee Anderson, a Republican who co-sponsored last year’s restrictive Georgia voting bill. He also publicly supported a baseless and unsuccessful U.S. Supreme Court challenge to the 2020 presidential election results in Georgia and three other states. In a recent interview, Mr. Anderson said that in making the changes to the local elections board, he was simply responding to the wishes of Lincoln County officials.
Mr. Norman is something of a legend in the county: The community gym proposed as the sole new voting site bears his name — “I got a road named after me too,” he said — and two years ago he changed his party affiliation from Democrat to Republican because he said it had become too hard to get elected as a Democrat. In an interview, he dismissed the idea that Black voters would be discriminated against by a consolidation. He noted that in all but one precinct, white voters outnumber Black ones.
“So if we’re suppressing anybody, I’m afraid we’re suppressing the white vote,” he said. “But that’s not our intent, to suppress any vote.”
Mr. Norman said that in recent elections, a majority of participants have voted early at a centralized location in Lincolnton. He also described a litany of problems with the current system: Three polling places are within about two and a half miles of one another. Some of the facilities are antiquated. Consolidation, he said, will require less equipment. “We don’t have to use but about half of the voting machines,” he said.
But opponents, both Black and white, expressed more concern for the convenience of voters than for that of the voting officials and poll workers.
Racy Smith, 56, the owner of a Lincolnton antique and curio shop, said it seemed “ridiculous” to close rural polling places in a county with limited public transportation. “My 86-year-old mom can still drive,” said Mr. Smith, who is white, “but there are so many that aren’t that active who live out in the county.”
The Rev. Denise Freeman, a former member of the school board and an activist leading the fight against the consolidation, expressed skepticism about the board’s true motivation. “I think it’s the good ol’ boys flexing their muscle for more power and more control,” she said.
On Thursday, Ms. Freeman gave a tour of some of the more remote areas of the county, a few miles from the J. Strom Thurmond reservoir, named for the Republican senator who was known as a segregationist but ended up voting to reauthorize the Voting Rights Act.
Ms. Freeman talked about her role in the other major racially charged issue that rocked the county in recent decades: an allegation, in the early 1990s, that Black children had been told to sit in the back of a school bus by a driver.
Black parents discussed keeping their children out of school. Ms. Freeman spoke up about this issue and other perceived injustices, earning her share of enemies.
Eventually, she said, an outside group came in to broker a sort of peace: the Department of Justice.
Three decades later, the residents of Lincoln County will most likely need to sort out their disagreement over polling places on their own. On Tuesday, Ms. Bolton’s office was in the process of verifying hundreds of protest petitions from voters in two precincts. Under Georgia law, those two polling places will have to stay open if the petitioners amount to 20 percent or more of the total electors in each precinct.
But Jim Allen, a board member, does not believe that the plan is dead. Some form of consolidation, he said, was likely to be considered eventually.
Michael Wines contributed reporting.