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Freed From Federal Oversight, Southern States Slash Number of Polling Places

Voters in states formerly covered by Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act will have at least 868 fewer polling locations at which to cast ballots on Nov. 8, according to a new study by the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a civil rights group that supports protections for minority voters.

The report found a "widespread effort to close polling places" in some of the states previously covered under Section 5, which was invalidated by a 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. The decision allowed states to change voting laws without approval by the federal government.

The report looked at the number of polling places for the 2016 general election in states including Alabama, Arizona, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina and Texas, compared to general elections in either 2012 or 2014.

Almost every county in Arizona reduced the number of polling places. Pima County, the state's second-largest, reported 62 fewer locations than the 280 it had four year ago. Cochise County, which had 50 polling places for its 12,466 voters in 2012, will have 18 on Nov. 8. In Arizona's presidential primary, Maricopa County, the state's largest, had one polling place for every 21,000 voters.

The number of polling places can have a significant impact on voting. Long lines and wait times are one possible result.

The study was not comprehensive. It included about half of the counties or cities formerly covered by Section 5. Georgia and Virginia weren't included because of a lack of information about polling place locations this year. In some of the other states, such data was unavailable for many counties.

In trying to address the reasons why polling places were closed, the report cites counties that have consolidated precincts into larger "voting centers" on Election Day. In some cases, voting location closings could be due to shifts in population or the costs of hiring staff and purchasing equipment for elections. In Louisiana, nearly two dozen polling places in Jefferson Parish were closed, many due to non-compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Another explanation could be the increased popularity of early voting. A number of states are seeing large increases in early turnout this year, including Texas.

Some states have handled the reductions better than others. The study found that while South Carolina cut 12 voting locations statewide, it passed a law after the Shelby case requiring that any precinct-level changes be published.

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Portrait of Derek Willis

Derek Willis

Derek Willis is a news applications developer at ProPublica, focusing on politics and elections.

About Electionland

ProPublica’s Electionland project covers problems that prevent eligible voters from casting their ballots during the 2020 elections. Our coalition of newsrooms around the country are investigating issues related to voter registration, pandemic-related changes to voting, the shift to vote-by-mail, cybersecurity, voter education, misinformation, and more.

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