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Precinct closures harming voter turnout in Georgia, analysis finds

Mark Niesse and Nick Thieme, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution on

Published in News & Features

ATLANTA -- Until her old concrete-block precinct shut down, Maggie Coleman lived about a mile from a place to cast her ballot in rural Georgia.

Now, she has to drive nearly 10 miles, past cotton fields and fallow farms, to reach the only voting location left in Clay County -- a small room inside a government benefits building. She said she would have voted in last year's primary election if it wasn't so inconvenient.

Coleman, a 71-year-old with knee and back pain, is one of many Georgia voters who miss elections because their polling place is farther away than it once was.

Amid widespread voter distrust of government oversight of elections and questions about ballot access, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution conducted a unique statistical analysis to learn how precinct closures and distance to the polls affect voting.

The AJC mapped Georgia's 7 million registered voters and compared how distance to their local precincts increased or decreased from 2012 to 2018. During that time, county election officials shut down 8% of Georgia's polling places and relocated nearly 40% of the state's precincts.

Most of the precinct closures and relocations occurred after the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013 ended federal oversight of local election decisions under the Voting Rights Act.

 

The AJC's analysis, vetted by two nonpartisan statistics experts, showed a clear link between turnout and reduced voting access. The farther voters live from their precincts, the less likely they are to cast a ballot.

Precinct closures and longer distances likely prevented an estimated 54,000 to 85,000 voters from casting ballots on election day last year, according to the AJC's findings.

And the effect was greater on black voters than white voters, the AJC found. Black voters were 20% more likely to miss elections because of long distances.

Without those precinct relocations, overall election day turnout in last year's midterm election likely would have been between 1.2% and 1.8% higher, the AJC estimated.

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