Free from federal oversight, 5 percent of Mississippi polling locations have closed since 2013

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Eric J. Shelton, Mississippi Today

The remains of Miracle Temple Evangelistic Church of God in Christ after a fire on October 2, is photographed on Lakeshore Road Tuesday, October 9, 2019. This was also a polling location for voters in precinct 96.

Holmes County Circuit Clerk Earline Wright-Hart still asks the U.S. Department of Justice for permission before making changes to polling places.

“I always like to follow protocol,” Wright-Hart, who is black, said, adding that many of the county’s seasoned clerks have retired. “I still do it out of respect for the person I used to do it with.”

This protocol was first imposed under the 1965 Voting Rights Act, passed to protect black voters from efforts to disenfranchise them. In 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down sections of the law that required officials in states with histories of electoral discrimination — including Mississippi — to obtain federal permission, or preclearance, before making changes to voting laws or practices, such as polling locations.

Poll taxes, literacy tests and voter intimidation were some of the ways Mississippi historically prevented African Americans from voting. The 5-4 decision in Shelby County v. Holder gutted parts of the 1965 law and gave states greater power over running elections.

Since the landmark ruling, Mississippi counties have closed around 100 precincts across the state, roughly 5 percent of its polling places, according to a Mississippi Today statewide analysis of precinct information in the past three federal elections.

While Mississippi counties are supposed to notify the secretary of state when making changes to polling locations, no entity provides oversight or maintains a central record of such changes. In some counties, clerks replace the precinct lists and are unable to cite previous addresses for polling places after they change, the analysis showed.

In addition to the closures, Mississippi Today identified 92 polling places that have been moved since 2013. Voters unsure about where to cast their ballot this November may use the secretary of state’s polling place locator.

When DOJ responded to Wright-Hart’s notice, she said, “They didn’t have any comment. They said to do whatever we wanted to do, just make sure to follow the guidelines.”

‘Racially polarized’ voting

Civil-rights advocates have long argued that precinct consolidation, although an effective way for counties to save money on elections, may lead to longer commutes for rural voters, many of whom lack transportation, and longer lines at the polls. Any of these hurdles disproportionately burden the poor and, possibly, minorities, which is why civil-liberties advocates heralded the Voting Rights Act as a backstop to voter suppression.

Based on limited available information, it’s unclear whether the poll closures in Mississippi — the state with the highest black population in the country — have disparate racial impacts at the ballot box. 

One of the Mississippi counties with the greatest reduction in polling locations, Tishomingo, is 96 percent white. The 19,500-person county lost over a fourth of its polling places, from 19 locations to 14, between 2014 and 2016.

In three counties — Leflore, Washington and Bolivar — with both a high African American and shrinking population in the last census, officials made no polling place reductions.

“We do not know if the closures themselves do not have an adverse impact on African American voters,” said Carroll Rhodes, a longtime attorney for Mississippi’s NAACP.

“It doesn’t matter if the closures are all in African American communities or not because in African American communities, many of them are in poverty with limited transportation … With limited income and lack of transportation, getting to the polls is not a priority and it’s also a financial burden.”

Rhodes added: “Voting is still racially polarized in Mississippi.”

Residents also have more difficulty voting in Mississippi than any other state, according to a study Northern Illinois University published in September. Factors that lead to Mississippi’s 50th ranking include the state’s registration deadline, which is a full month before Election Day, lack of early or mail-in voting, with the exception of absentee voting, and the voter ID requirement.

Holmes County, which is 83 percent African-American and consistently ranks among the poorest counties in the nation, has closed one of 17 precincts since 2012. Most recently, the county relocated two polling places less than a month before the midterm elections.

One statewide race on the November ballot pits Democrats Mike Espy, former congressman and U.S. secretary of agriculture, and Tobey Bartee, who are black, against Republicans U.S. Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith, former state agriculture commissioner, and state Sen. Chris McDaniel, both of whom are white.

Mississippi has not elected a black candidate to the U.S. Senate since Reconstruction, and turnout is expected to be higher than in a normal midterm election year.

“I don’t trust folks,” said Leroy Johnson, co-founder of Southern Echo, an advocacy group currently looking at whether poll closures and other state policies are harming turnout in Mississippi. “Doing this work and being around this stuff for 30 years, in terms of elections and running elections … I’ve learned all of these things and it’s made me very wary of why people do things. Nearly 100 percent of the time they do it for political reasons and political reasons that affect the outcomes for certain people.”

In Mississippi, the decrease in total polling sites comes despite several few counties, such as rapidly growing DeSoto, adding precincts in the last several years.

Since Shelby, states in the Southeast and other jurisdictions once subject to federal oversight of elections have closed nearly 20 percent more polling places per capita than other parts of the country, according to an analysis by VICE.

But with many election decisions, such as polling locations, taking place on the local level, Mississippi Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann said he’s confident voter suppression is not happening here.

“All politics are local,” Hosemann said, implying that the county boards of supervisors, which approve polling addresses, have to make voting convenient so they can keep constituents happy. “Local political pressure is a very good balance without us having to weigh in.”

Hosemann also said local election commissioners handle any voter roll purges; his office is not involved in that process.

Under a controversial 2013 state law requiring voters to have a valid ID at their polling place, the state has issued 6,700 identification cards “to people who have never had them.” Hosemann called this a “huge positive” and said the fact Mississippi has not been sued over its law serves as proof the state’s version of the law passes U.S. Department of Justice muster.

In 2016 during the last presidential election, federal observers did not visit Mississippi for the first time in recent history, according to the secretary of state’s office.

“I’m not denying our history … It’s horrible,” Hosemann added. “That said, we’ve turned a page.”

‘Rubber stamp’

There are 1,772 total precincts across the state today, but the state does not keep a database of all historical polling precinct locations. State officials only take a snapshot of precincts in each county during federal election years, but do not track where the closures occurred.

Mississippi Today contacted all 82 counties in the state to find out where local officials consolidated, closed or relocated polling places since 2013 and map which communities are affected.

Seven counties ignored our request. Twenty counties said they had made no changes to polling places, even in cases where that was false. Most other counties relied on institutional knowledge to say what changed and when. Out of 114 closures, Mississippi Today was able to map just 55.

The lack of data and transparency has prompted skepticism among some advocacy groups in the wake of the Shelby decision.

“I’m concerned about anything that can potentially suppress the vote,” said Charles Taylor, an organizer and political data manager for One Voice Mississippi. Among those concerns are convenient polling precincts, the newer voter ID requirement and counties having enough poll workers and ballots on Election Day.

Rhodes said efforts to make voting difficult for African Americans, who are more likely to vote for Democratic candidates, began before the Shelby decision but “increased at a rocket’s pace,” following the ruling.

One majority-black county in Georgia, Randolph County, received national attention in August after local officials proposed closing roughly 75 percent of its precincts. The closures would have added roughly 10 miles to voters’ commutes. The officials said they were closing the facilities because they did not comply with the Americans with Disability Act, a common challenge in rural counties.

The planned closures, which a local elections board ultimately struck down, came just months before the governor’s race, ushering national concern over voter suppression, particularly in minority communities. Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, a white Republican who supervises elections, faces Democratic nominee Stacey Abrams, who could become the first African-American woman governor in the history of the state and the nation. Georgia has closed 8 percent of its voting precincts in the last six years.

Hosemann said in his twelve years in office, he has never received a complaint about a polling location closure or change. The office has also never identified any county that altered precincts for political purposes — though it does not have the jurisdiction to investigate every change, either.

Generally, county election commissioners make recommendations to the county board of supervisors, which ultimately approve the locations of polling places. But the boards often act as a “rubber stamp” for the commissioners, Rhodes said.

Moved or closed polling locations shouldn’t necessarily concern voters, elections officials say. In some cases, precinct changes could indicate that county officials are ensuring polling locations make sense for the voters living there today.

In Wilkinson County, for example, voters at one time cast their ballots in a building that had actually been condemned. The county relocated that precinct prior to 2013 after gaining preclearance.

“We need to know where they (closures) are so we can talk about the effect. They (counties) may have wonderful good reasons for doing it, but now they don’t even have to give a reason for doing it, they just make the change,” Johnson said. “That’s highly suspect in a state like Mississippi.”

Budgets and logistics

Election commissioners and county supervisors often cite budget constraints and shrinking population among the reasons for closing a precinct.

A Coahoma County precinct at the deteriorating Sherard Store and Post Office, which the county closed this year, served “like 18 to 20 active voters,” said Coahoma County Circuit Clerk Demetria Jackson.

“Sometimes we don’t have but 10 (voters) who show up,” said Jackson, whose county has a 75 percent African-American population and lost just one of its 19 polling places since 2012.

During the last presidential election, voters at the West Lyman precinct at Orange Grove Elementary School in Gulfport stood in lines weaving through the classroom hallways and out the door.

The next year, instead of splitting the district, Harrison County merged West Lyman into nearby East Lyman, two miles away at the Lyman Community Center, a larger facility, to accommodate more voters.

“I don’t know if it’s going to create longer wait times but they’ll be inside for that wait,” said Becky Payne, an elections commissioner in Harrison County, which has closed 12 precincts since 2012, more than any other county in the state.

Payne has prioritized moving voting precincts out of schools for safety reasons. She also cited scenarios where two precincts are so close together, “it just makes sense,” to consolidate them and save money by hiring fewer poll workers.

Still, Payne said for “checks and balances,” county officials consider several factors when moving a polling place: the quality of the facility, how much further voters will have to travel, handicap accessibility, lighting, and room for lines.

“Even though you’re not under the DOJ, you still have to consider the same rules,” Payne said. “You can’t just go back to the way it was before.”

The Voting Rights Act still prohibits Election Day practices that discriminate based on race.

State law governing precinct management is relatively vague, but requires county boards to include any precinct changes on their minutes and says that precinct boundaries should “conform to visible natural or artificial boundaries such as streets, highways, railroads, rivers, lakes, bayous or other obvious lines of demarcation.” The attorney general’s office would be responsible for enforcing any of these laws.

Then there are emergency cases, like when Miracle Temple Evangelistic Church in South Jackson, the polling place for Precinct 96, burned down on October 2. A week later Hinds County Board of Supervisors approved temporarily locating the precinct at the Lakeshore Fire Station No. 22, just one -fifth of a mile away.

Hinds County Election Commissioner Yvonne Horton also said she has asked for the largest possible sign with directions to the fire station she plans to post outside the building’s charred remains.

Hinds County has closed nine precincts since 2012, all of which were located in Jackson — where 81 percent of residents are black.

‘No excuse’

A 2016 report of the Washington, D.C.,-based Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights nonprofit, highlighted Mississippi’s poll closures. The authors focused on changes to polling places in Lauderdale County after the county seat, Meridian, elected its first black mayor Percy Bland in 2013.

The report raised questions about the county’s decision to relocate precincts from black churches, “including Mt. Olive Baptist, an iconic church with a legacy of voting rights activism.” Lauderdale Election Commissioner Jeff Tate told Mississippi Today that the church kept requesting that its facility not be used as a polling place. It was not in voters’ best interest for the precinct to keep moving around, Tate said.

Officials from the church did not return calls to Mississippi Today.

This year, the county, which is 44 percent black, moved the precinct back to the Mt. Olive Baptist Church permanently.

Lauderdale has one of the highest rates of changing polling locations. The county has consistently consolidated precincts over the last decade since Tate was elected. In his tenure, the county has gone from 54 to 40 precincts, including five closures that the Justice Department precleared.

“It was a waste of taxpayer dollars to have 54 precincts,” Tate said.

In Meehan, the county’s largest precinct geographically, voters may have to travel 10 miles to get to their polling place. The majority-white precinct is as large as the entire City of Meridian, Tate said.

Tate also said the Meehan precinct at the Meehan Fire Station is one of the highest-turn out precincts and if those folks can get to the polls, there’s “no excuse to not be able to go vote” in any other precinct.

Mississippi Today also found instances where reports from the circuit clerk’s office did not match secretary of state records. While Rankin County’s Circuit Clerk told Mississippi Today it did not relocate or close any polling locations in the last five years, state records show the county added six precincts between 2012 and 2014 and then eliminated nine between 2014 and 2018 for a net loss of three precincts.

County Boards of Supervisors must send their meeting minutes to the secretary of state’s office when they make a change. The office does not keep these records longer than two years, so Mississippi Today analyzed the records dating back to 2016.

In September, Smith County Board of Supervisors sent notice to the secretary of state’s office and — though not required — to the U.S. Department of Justice notifying each agency of a precinct relocation due to a deteriorating building.

Attached to the board’s letter were affidavits from an election commissioner and a county supervisor, both of whom identified themselves as African-American in the affidavits.

“I do not feel that moving the location … will inconvenience the voters of the North Raleigh voting precinct,” each affidavit reads. “This move is necessary and is not made to inconvenience voters, especially minority voters.”

Not all county officials go this far. In some cases, counties sent just one sheet of paper to the secretary of state explaining the change.

Panola County, for example, sent the office two board orders from May and July 2018 that contained the vote to consolidate two precincts but did not explain a reason.

Tate said he ensures Lauderdale County’s many precinct closures and relocations do not burden voters by “just using common sense.”

“My constituents can vote me out of if they think I’m doing something wrong,” he said.

Reporters Michelle Liu, Erica Hensley and Adam Ganucheau contributed to this story.