Persisting problems with local election administration creates barriers to the ballot box, particularly for communities with a history of racial discrimination at the polls.
A significant issue is the restriction of in-person voting. State and local governments, now free from the Voting Rights Act of 1965’s provisions, have reduced the number of locations to vote in-person on Election Day and during early voting. In Louisiana, for example, parish governments closed a total of 126 polling places between 2012 and 2018. In Mississippi, county governments closed a total of 96 polling places between 2012 and 2018. And in Alabama, county governments closed a total of 72 polling places during the same time period.
These problems should be seen in the context of the Supreme Court’s 2013 decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the provision of Voting Rights Act that prevented some states from passing discriminatory voting laws. Unfortunately, many Southern localities have taken full advantage of this freedom from federal oversight to impose hard-to-spot practices that create barriers for voters of color in every election.
The removal of a polling place in a neighborhood can cause longer wait times and voter confusion when voters show up to the wrong polling place. Likewise, a lack of access to early voting reduces the opportunity for marginalized communities to vote, since marginalized communities tend to use early voting at higher rates. In the Deep South in particular, most states do not provide universal vote by mail, so the majority of voters must vote in-person to exercise their right to vote.
Before the Shelby County decision, the Voting Rights Act authorized the federal government to prevent these discriminatory practices through a process called “preclearance.” In jurisdictions subject to preclearance, the federal government would provide oversight to every change in voting policy and watch out for potentially discriminatory adverse effects. Although federal preclearance is now gone, community organizers are in the position to gather their own information to show the patterns and practices to enforce the remaining provisions of the Voting Rights Act. While we wait for Congress to restore the Voting Rights Act, it is up to organizers to engage in their own “community preclearance” to fill the gap by spotting and responding to issues that prevent voters from accessing the ballot box.
Campaign Legal Center (CLC) has partnered with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and organizers in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama to provide resources on expanding access to the ballot, and to advocate for better policies to increase the number of polling places on Election Day and during early voting.