Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote

The surge in voting changes at the state and local level after the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby County v. Holder decision catalyzed a systemic examination of poll closures and other seemingly innocuous changes that could have negatively impacted voters of color. In 2016, The Leadership Conference Education Fund identified 868 polling place closures in formerly Section 5 jurisdictions in our initial report, The Great Poll Closure. This report, Democracy Diverted: Polling Place Closures and the Right to Vote, is both an update to — and a major expansion of — our original publication.

Our first report drew on a sample of fewer than half of the approximately 860 counties or county-equivalents that were once covered by Section 5. This report covers an expanded data set of 757 counties. What’s more, the 2016 report relied on voluntary reports of aggregate numbers of polling places that state election officials gave to the U.S. Election Assistance Commission. This report relies largely on independent counts of polling places from public records requests and publicly available polling place lists.

In this report, we found 1,688 polling place closures between 2012 and 2018, almost double the 868 closures found in our 2016 report. Additionally, Democracy Diverted analyzes the reduction of polling places in the formerly covered Section 5 jurisdictions in the years between the 2014 and 2018 midterm elections. We found 1,173 fewer polling places in 2018 — despite a significant increase in voter turnout. To understand the discriminatory impact of these closures, we analyzed how voters of color were impacted at the precinct level. This analysis — precisely the kind that the U.S. Department of Justice conducted under preclearance — takes time and resources. Our hope is that journalists, advocates, and voters will use this county-level polling place data to scrutinize the impact of poll closures in their communities, to understand their impact on voters of color, and to create a fairer and more just electoral system for all.

Key states in focus:

Texas

Texas, a state where 39 percent of the population is Latino and 12 percent is African American, has closed 750 polling places since Shelby, by far the most of any state in our study. Five of the six largest closers of polling places are in Texas. With 74 closures, Dallas County, which is 41 percent Latino and 22 percent African American, is the second largest closer of polling places, followed by Travis County, which is 34 percent Latino, (–67). Harris County, which is 42 percent Latino and 19 percent African American, (–52) and Brazoria County, which is 13 percent African American and 30 percent Latino (–37) tied with Nueces County, which is 63 percent Latino (–37). Many, but not all, of these polling places were closed as part of a statewide effort to centralize voting into “countywide polling places.” This effort slashed the number of voting locations but allowed voters to cast ballots at any Election Day polling place. Without Section 5 of the VRA, we cannot assess the impact these mass closures have on communities of color.

To read more on the key megacloser states and details on the full report, click here.
0 polling sites across 13states have closed in the six years since the Shelby v Holder decision gutted key voter protections.

Key states in focus:

Arizona

Arizona, a state where 30 percent of the population is Latino, 4 percent is Native American, and 4 percent is African American, has the most widespread reduction (–320) in polling places. Almost every county (13 of 15 counties) closed polling places since preclearance was removed — some on a staggering scale. Maricopa County, which is 31 percent Latino, closed 171 voting locations since 2012 — the most of any county studied and more than the two next largest closers combined. Many Arizona counties shuttered significant numbers of polling places, including Mohave, which is 16 percent Latino (–34); Cochise, which is 35 percent Latino (–32); and Pima, which is 37 percent Latino (–31).

To read more on the key megacloser states and details on the full report, click here.
Courts have found intentional discrimination in at least 10 voting rights decisions since the Shelby court decision.

Key states in focus:

Georgia

Georgia, a state where 31 percent of the population is African American and 9 percent is Latino, has 214 fewer polling places. Georgia stands out because its counties have closed higher percentages of voting locations than any other state in our study. The top five closers of polling places by percentage were Georgia counties: The top three counties in the state were Lumpkin (89 percent closed); Stephens (88 percent closed); and Warren, which is 61 percent African American (83 percent closed). Bacon County, which is 15 percent African American, and Butts County, which is 28 percent African American, tied with 80 percent closed. Seven counties with major polling place reductions now have only one polling site to serve hundreds of square miles. In a February 2015 memo, the office of Brian Kemp, who was then serving as Georgia’s secretary of state, encouraged counties to consolidate voting locations. He specifically spelled out twice — in bold font — that “as a result of the Shelby vs. Holder [sic] Supreme Court decision, [counties are] no longer required to submit polling place changes to the Department of Justice for preclearance.”

For many people, and particularly for voters of color, older voters, rural voters, and voters with disabilities, these burdens make it harder — and sometimes impossible — to vote.