Republican Secretary of State Brian Kemp is rejecting allegations that he encouraged a plan to close voting precincts in a majority African-American county in southwest Georgia.
Kemp’s critics questioned his role Monday because of his ties to a consultant who proposed the precinct closures and donated $250 to his campaign. Kemp faces Democrat Stacey Abrams in November’s election for governor.
But Kemp, who is Georgia’s top elections official, never suggested that counties consolidate polling places, spokeswoman Candice Broce said.
In addition, the consultant who proposed closing seven of nine precincts in Randolph County backtracked Monday on his previous statement that Kemp had recommended fewer precincts. The consultant, Mike Malone, now says the secretary of state has no role in precinct changes.
The Randolph County Elections Board is scheduled to vote Friday on whether to reduce small voting sites in a rural county that’s 61 percent black and supported Democrat Hillary Clinton for president with 55 percent of the vote in 2016. Malone told residents in a meeting last week that the precincts were expensive to operate and noncompliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act, which requires accommodations for people with disabilities.
“We haven’t advised counties to do anything” to consolidate precincts, Broce said. “We think it’s a terrible idea. … The solution to a noncompliant polling place in terms of the ADA is not just to shut it down for everyone. It’s to fix it.”
Malone said a slide shown to residents last week stating that “consolidation has come highly recommended by the secretary of state” was inaccurate. Decisions on precinct closures are made by local governments in Georgia, not by the state.
“I don’t recall ever hearing anything from the secretary of state that said they recommend this,” Malone said Monday.
Malone didn’t explain why the slide said the secretary of state supported consolidation.
If the Elections Board approves closing the seven precincts, 1,693 registered voters would have to be reassigned to larger precincts in the cities of Cuthbert and Shellman, according to an analysis of registration numbers by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. One precinct facing closure has just 75 registered voters. In all, there were 4,231 registered voters in the county at the time of the May 22 primary election.
Fewer precincts would make it harder for people in a largely African-American community to vote in the race for governor that features Abrams, who is trying to become the first black female governor in the nation, said U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, a Democrat whose district includes Randolph County.
“It is clear who will have to bear the burden of reduced access to the polls,” Bishop wrote Monday in a letter to Kemp and U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions. “Low-income African-Americans without a car will be forced to walk three and a half hours to reach the new polling places if they want to vote in person on Election Day.”
DuBose Porter, the chairman of the Democratic Party of Georgia, seized on the precinct closure plan 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,” Porter said. “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.”
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 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.”
Opponents of the plan to close precincts questioned Malone’s ties to Kemp.
The Randolph County Elections Board hired Malone as a consultant last spring after the county’s elections supervisor abruptly quit. Randolph Elections Board Chairman Scott Peavy contacted Georgia Elections Director Chris Harvey to seek job candidates on short notice who have current election certifications, Broce said. Harvey provided three names, including Malone’s.
Malone’s job was to help administer elections and find a certified elections supervisor, who has since been hired.
Malone has rejected criticism that the move would disenfranchise voters, and he 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 during a meeting last week. “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.”
Any vote on consolidating precincts will have to be unanimous because the Randolph Elections Board currently has only two members — Peavy and Michele Graham. The third seat is vacant. The nonpartisan Elections Board is appointed by elected officials in Randolph County and the cities of Cuthbert and Shellman.
Peavy and Graham declined to comment except to say that a decision will be made Friday.
It’s a busy election year, and The Atlanta Journal-Constitution is keeping the spotlight on the leading candidates for governor, Republican Brian Kemp and Democrat Stacey Abrams. Stories we’ve done include a look at Kemp’s fundraising among industries he regulates and Abrams’ tax difficulties. Look for more at ajc.com/politics as the state heads for the general election on Nov. 6.