Report: 868 Fewer Places for People of Color to Cast Ballots in 2016 Election

The gutting of the Voting Rights Act in 2013 resulted in the closure of hundreds of polling places in historically discriminatory jurisdictions. 

A woman votes during Missouri primary voting at the January-Wabash Elementary School on March 15, 2016, in Ferguson, Mo. MICHAEL B. THOMAS/AFP/Getty Images

Tuesday’s election is the first since the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act three years ago in Shelby County v. Holder, and according to a study published Friday, 868 polling places that served mostly people of color have been closed in that time.

The Great Poll Closure” (pdf), a study published by the Leadership Conference Education Fund, looks at the effects of the 2013 removal of federal oversight that required jurisdictions with a history of racial discrimination to submit all proposed voting changes to the U.S. Department of Justice or the U.S. District Court in Washington, D.C., through what was known as “preclearance.” Preclearance was a way of ensuring that no new voting law could be made in those jurisdictions unless it was determined that it didn’t discriminate against minority voters.

According to the study, the Supreme Court made preclearance inoperable when it invalidated  the formula that determined which states and jurisdictions were required to go through preclearance. This “opened the door to racial discrimination at every juncture of the electoral process.”

Before the ruling, jurisdictions were required to give “substantial notice” to voters about any planned polling-place closures, and any proposed voting change required consulting with the minority community to ensure that it wasn’t discriminatory. After the ruling, the study says, poll closures have gone “unnoticed, unreported, and unchallenged.”

Since 2013, the Voting Rights Amendment Act and the Voting Rights Advancement Act, two bipartisan bills, have been proposed to address the gaps in enforcement created by the ruling. Both bills would reinstate the notice requirement and expand it nationwide for voting changes that are known to be potentially discriminatory, like polling-place changes, and both include an updated formula for preclearance, but neither bill has been advanced by Congress.

The study looked at 381 of the approximately 800 counties that were once covered by preclearance. Of those, 165 of them, or 43 percent, had reduced voting locations. Arizona, Louisiana, Alabama and Texas were found to have closed polling places on a massive scale.

The study concludes that “without oversight, transparency, and accountability,” counties formerly covered under the preclearance rule “closed hundreds of polling places in advance of the first presidential election in 50 years without a fully operable Voting Rights Act.”

The solution, the study says, it to pass one of the two Voting Rights Act restoration bills.

Read more at the Leadership Conference Education Fund (pdf).

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