By Stephen Fowler, Georgia Public Broadcasting
This article is co-published by ProPublica, Georgia Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio.
Kathy spotted the long line of voters as she pulled into the Christian City Welcome Center about 3:30 p.m., ready to cast her ballot in the June 9 primary election.
Hundreds of people were waiting in the heat and rain outside the lush, tree-lined complex in Union City, an Atlanta suburb with 22,400 residents, nearly 88% of them Black. She briefly considered not casting a ballot at all, but decided to stay.
By the time she got inside more than five hours later, the polls had officially closed and the electronic scanners were shut down. Poll workers told her she’d have to cast a provisional ballot, but they promised that her vote would be counted.
“I’m now angry again, I’m frustrated again, and now I have an added emotion, which is anxiety,” said Kathy, a human services worker, recalling her emotions at the time. She asked that her full name not be used because she fears repercussions from speaking out. “I’m wondering if my ballot is going to count.”
By the time the last voter finally got inside the welcome center to cast a ballot, it was the next day, June 10.
The clogged polling locations in metro Atlanta reflect an underlying pattern: the number of places to vote has shrunk statewide, with little recourse. Although the reduction in polling places has taken place across racial lines, it has primarily caused long lines in nonwhite neighborhoods where voter registration has surged and more residents cast ballots in person on Election Day. The pruning of polling places started long before the pandemic, which has discouraged people from voting in person.
In Georgia, considered a battleground state for control of the White House and U.S. Senate, the difficulty of voting in Black communities like Union City could possibly tip the results on Nov. 3. With massive turnout expected, lines could be even longer than they were for the primary, despite a rise in mail-in voting and Georgians already turning out by the hundreds of thousands to cast ballots early.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision in 2013 eliminated key federal oversight of election decisions in states with histories of discrimination, Georgia’s voter rolls have grown by nearly 2 million people, yet polling locations have been cut statewide by nearly 10%, according to an analysis of state and local records by Georgia Public Broadcasting and ProPublica. Much of the growth has been fueled by younger, nonwhite voters, especially in nine metro Atlanta counties, where four out of five new voters were nonwhite, according to the Georgia secretary of state’s office.
The metro Atlanta area has been hit particularly hard. The nine counties — Fulton, Gwinnett, Forsyth, DeKalb, Cobb, Hall, Cherokee, Henry and Clayton — have nearly half of the state’s active voters but only 38% of the polling places, according to the analysis.
As a result, the average number of voters packed into each polling location in those counties grew by nearly 40%, from about 2,600 in 2012 to more than 3,600 per polling place as of Oct. 9, the analysis shows. In addition, a last-minute push that opened more than 90 polling places just weeks before the November election has left many voters uncertain about where to vote or how long they might wait to cast a ballot.
The growth in registered voters has outstripped the number of available polling places in both predominantly white and Black neighborhoods. But the lines to vote have been longer in Black areas, because Black voters are more likely than whites to cast their ballots in person on Election Day and are more reluctant to vote by mail, according to U.S. census data and recent studies. Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that about two-thirds of the polling places that had to stay open late for the June primary to accommodate waiting voters were in majority-Black neighborhoods, even though they made up only about one-third of the state’s polling places. An analysis by Stanford University political science professor Jonathan Rodden of the data collected by Georgia Public Broadcasting/ProPublica found that the average wait time after 7 p.m. across Georgia was 51 minutes in polling places that were 90% or more nonwhite, but only 6 minutes in polling places that were 90% white.
Georgia law sets a cap of 2,000 voters for a polling place that has experienced significant voter delays, but that limit is rarely if ever enforced. Our analysis found that, in both majority Black and majority white neighborhoods, about nine of every 10 precincts are assigned to polling places with more than 2,000 people.
A June 2020 analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School found that the average number of voters assigned to a polling place has grown in the past five years in Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi and South Carolina — all states with substantial Black populations that before Shelby needed federal approval to close polling places under the Voting Rights Act. And though dozens of states have regulations on the size of voting precincts and polling places or the number of voting machines, the analysis found that many jurisdictions do not abide by them.
Georgia’s state leadership and elections officials have largely ignored complaints about poll consolidations even as they tout record growth in voter registration. As secretary of state from 2010 to 2018, when most of Georgia’s poll closures occurred, Brian Kemp, now the governor, took a laissez-faire attitude toward county-run election practices, save for a 2015 document that spelled out methods officials could use to shutter polling places to show “how the change can benefit voters and the public interest.”