Accusations of black voter suppression in Georgia county spur closely watched vote

Source: WGCL

In front of a packed audience and reporters from local and national news outlets, Randolph County's Board of Elections voted Friday to keep the county's nine voting precincts open, rejecting a proposal that some called an attempt to suppress the county's black vote.

The board -- which is down to two members, one white and one black, after its third member resigned to run for a seat on the local school board -- needed only a couple of minutes to call the meeting to order, vote, and adjourn.

The audience, which included representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and members of the state and local branches of the NAACP, applauded the vote.

“It was like, 'Ok, now I can breathe,'” said lifelong Randolph County resident Naomi Jenkins. "I can exhale now because now that part is over.”

Randolph County, located in southwest Georgia 170 miles from Atlanta, is among the least populated counties in all of Georgia. Roughly 4,000 of its 7,000 citizens are registered to vote. It’s a majority African-American county with a median household income of about $30,000.

When word got out that a consultant who had been recommended by a staff member in Secretary of State Brian Kemp’s office was suggesting that the county close seven of its nine polling places, some people started to get suspicious. that elections officials were trying to suppress the black vote.

The timing of the proposal led civil rights groups to assume someone wanted to skew votes in the Democratic-leaning county away from Stacey Abrams, the former Georgia House minority leader who's trying to become the first African-American governor in the country. Abrams faces Kemp, a Republican, in the Nov. 6 general election.

“I feel that’s what they were trying to do, cut out some of the voters,” said Mary Starling, another life-long Randolph County resident who lives in the tiny community of Benevolence. Starling manages the polling place there, which was one of the seven on the chopping block.

When it came time for Friday's vote, members of the Randolph County Board of Elections appeared nervous. That board, by the way, is down to just two members. A third resigned to run for a seat on the school board. It took them less than 30 seconds to take care of the business at hand.

“I move that the Randolph County Board of Elections and Registration make no change to the voting precincts in Randolph County,” said board member Michele Graham.

“There is a motion, and I second it, and the vote shall be," said board member Scott Peavy. "All in favor say, ‘Aye.’”

“Aye,” both said.

"This meeting is adjourned," said Peavy.

The audience burst into applause.

After the vote, Peavy and Graham declined to speak with reporters. CBS46 has learned that both board members had been the subject of threats for even considering the proposal.

“These are volunteer folks and just average people," said county attorney Tommy Coleman. “They were nervous as they could be. It freaked them out pretty badly.”

Coleman said the two board members never really liked the proposal to consolidate the precincts. He said they only considered it because it would’ve saved the county money to close locations where in some elections, only a couple dozen people show up to vote. Plus, some precincts are not fully accessible to people with disabilities.

“They did go through a process and had a couple of hearings which were not required by the statute, but they did that to receive community input anyway," Coleman said.

Earlier this week, Coleman fired the consultant who suggested the changes.

Jenkins and Starling, the long-time residents, said they believe the exposure from outside groups swayed the board's decision in their favor.

“Oh, it is a relief out of this world, knowing that our precincts are not going to be cut out," said Starling. "Our people are going to be able to come and vote.”

“It’s been a long, hard fight," said Jenkins, "but we are glad they made the decision that they made.”

After the vote, both candidates released statements praising the board's decision.Copyright 2018 WGCL-TV (Meredith Corporation). All rights reserved.

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