ATLANTA (AP) - Election officials in a majority black Georgia county voted Friday to scrap a widely condemned proposal to eliminate most of their polling places.
Concern about the proposal to close seven of nine voting locations in the rural county was "overwhelming," and is "an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle," the elections board in Randolph County said in a statement.
Critics questioned why a county would make it harder to vote during the hotly contested governor's race. Georgia's top elections official, Republican Brian Kemp, is running against Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is trying to become Georgia's first black governor. Both said they oppose the plan.
An independent consultant recommended the consolidation and said the seven polling places in question don't comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The county fired that consultant in a letter sent Wednesday.
The polling places in question had all been used for the primary election in May and the primary runoff election in July, and officials should have been aware of ADA compliance issues.
Randolph County and the Department of Justice entered a settlement agreement in 2012 promising to fix the ADA violations in three years. The settlement specifically included a section on polling place compliance. A grant was used to fix issues in the courthouse, but the other updates didn't happen, county attorney Tommy Coleman said.
Civil rights groups and black lawmakers said black voters would be disenfranchised if the voting locations were shuttered. Census figures show the county, about 160 miles (260 kilometers) south of Atlanta, is more than 61 percent black, double the statewide percentage.
The circumstances leave "a reasonable observer to wonder whether the real motive behind these closures is indeed to make it harder for African Americans to cast a ballot," American Civil Liberties Union of Georgia attorney Sean Young said in a letter sent to county officials Aug. 14.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund and the ACLU of Georgia sent a joint letter Wednesday to election officials in all 159 Georgia counties, urging them to avoid polling place changes that could disenfranchise voters.
On Thursday, leaders of the Georgia Legislative Black Caucus and the Congressional Black Caucus strongly urged the county to keep them open. In a letter to Randolph County officials, the congressional group called it "a deliberate effort to disenfranchise an emerging and engaged demographic."
ACLU of Georgia executive director Andrea Young wrote Friday that the whole situation "demonstrates clearly the need to reinstate the pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act," which until it was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013, required "historically-discriminatory states such as Georgia to obtain preapproval from a U.S. court or the U.S. Department of Justice before enacting any election changes to ensure that proposed changes would not discriminate against protected minorities."
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