Republican Brian Kemp is facing criticism about his role in a proposal to close most of the polling sites in a predominantly black county in rural Georgia.
Kemp, who as secretary of state is Georgia’s top elections official, joined the chorus of officials criticizing Randolph County for its plans to shutter seven of its nine voting locations just weeks before the November election.
But his ties to a consultant hired by the county’s elections board who recommended closing the sites has factored into a new round of barbs aimed Kemp’s way. The Republican faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in the November elections, and voting rights issues are front-and-center in the contest.
The consultant, Mike Malone, presented a slide to county residents at two “courtesy” meetings last week addressing the changes that included these lines he read aloud about the plan to reduce polling sites:
Consolidation has come highly recommended by the Secretary of State and is already being adopted by several counties and is being seriously considered and being worked on by many more.
“The trend in Georgia and other states is to reduce polling places to reduce election costs and this is being accomplished by consolidating polling places into more combined vote centers.”
Sean Young, an ACLU attorney, called Malone’s slide a “stunning admission” that Kemp’s policy led to the effort to close the polls. And DuBose Porter, chair of the Democratic Party of Georgia, seized on it to renew calls for Kemp to resign.
“Georgia voters are on to Brian Kemp, which is why so many of them have called on him to resign his position of secretary of state - he cannot be trusted to administer the election,” said Porter. “It’s clear as ever that he needs to step down.”
Kemp, who has said he will not resign, issued a statement through his office last week saying although state law gives counties the authority to set polling locations, “we strongly urged local officials to abandon this effort and focus on preparing for a secure, accessible and fair election this November.”
Pressed for further comment on Malone’s remarks, Kemp spokeswoman Candice Broce on Monday repeated the call for Randolph County to abandon the plan and said “our position on this is crystal clear.”
Abrams, meanwhile, has also ratcheted up the pressure on Randolph County officials to ditch the plan. Her path to victory centers on mobilizing black voters, particularly in rural areas. She called the issue “extremely personal” because of her parents’ struggles to vote during the Jim Crow era.
“We are watching and we’re fighting back,” she wrote in a note to supporters on Sunday evening. “Because we know that our ancestors fought too hard and bled too much for us to cede our right to vote just because it is hard.”
Malone, who contributed $250 to Kemp’s campaign, was hired earlier this year after a local supervisor abruptly quit. Elections board chair Scott Peavy told residents at one meeting that he called Kemp’s office and elections director Chris Harvey suggested he hire Malone because he was certified to run votes.
“Our elections superintendent decided to quit or retire in the middle of the elections process, and we had no choice but to find someone quickly. Mr. Malone came highly recommended from the Secretary of State’s office,” said Peavy.
“Mr. Malone came in during a very dire situation, and he’s made the best of it. He’s done an incredible job in salvaging our elections, and the county is grateful for that.”
All nine polling stations were open during votes in May and July, but county officials described the plan to close them now as a cost-saving measure that also helps Randolph comply with the federal American Disabilities Act because of the shoddy conditions of some of the locations.
At one of the “courtesy” meetings, Malone rejected criticism that the move would disenfranchise voters, and pointed to absentee and early voting alternatives.
“Is this the right time? The answer is no. It’s not. The reason it’s not the right time? It’s never the right time. Should we wait for the presidential year? Should we wait for an off year?” Malone said. “The main thing is not everyone is going to be happy with the talk of consolidation whether it be now or two years down the road.”
As a Friday vote on the proposal nears, several residents who attended the meetings have threatened legal action. And a growing number of civil rights organizations, including the Georgia NAACP and the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, have demanded that the county drop its plans.
“This is nothing more than a racially motivated, voter suppression scheme that aims to lock black voters out of a historic election cycle,” said Kristen Clarke, the committee’s executive director.
Read other recent AJC stories about Randolph County’s proposal: