It’s no secret that Republicans—particularly in the Trump era—have spent a considerable amount of time and effort blocking, disenfranchising, and suppressing black, Latinx, and student voters who tend to vote for Democrats in higher numbers.
But with the midterms looming, Republicans have turned to a new insidious method to move the electoral goalposts to ensure their voters have the upper hand come election day: the Americans with Disabilities act. Yes, laws designed to ensure equal rights are being used to effectively deny communities of color those same opportunities they were created to defend.
In the year and a half since President Donald Trump was voted into office, ThinkProgress reported on Wednesday, the Justice Department has settled five more cases of polling station violations of the ADA—four of which occurred in communities with large minority populations. ThinkProgress noted that there were only nine such settlements total during the previous decade.
Frequently, according to ThinkProgress, these types of targeted investigations by the DOJ result in either a costly settlement, or threats to close down polling locations entirely—both of which can depress voter turnout.
Perhaps nowhere is this troubling trend more evident than in Georgia’s Randolph County—a small, left-leaning county which has voted blue in the past three presidential elections, and which just so happens to be more than 61% black. There, local officials have proposed closing seven of the county’s nine polling precincts claiming they are not compliant with ADA regulations.
Residents, however, think something much more insidious is underway. “The bottom line with this, it’s about race. That’s the problem this is creating,” one man told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. It’s a sentiment echoed by ACLU of Georgia executive director Andrea Young, who called the proposal “reminiscent of Georgia’s ugly, discriminatory past.”
And there’s reason to be skeptical—while the recommendation to close the polling stations based on ADA compliance came by way of an outside consultant hired to assess the county’s voting infrastructure, an investigation by HuffPost reporter Sam Levine revealed that the county itself appeared to have no actual documentation to support the claim.
The consultant, Mike Malone, has ties to Secretary of State Brian Kemp, the Republican nominee for governor, and reportedly cited his work on polling place “consolidation” in a presentation to Randolph County residents; after the backlash, Kemp’s office denied that he suggested that precincts consolidate and said the county should ditch the proposal.
“There is no document, report or analysis studying the handicap accessibility of polling places in Randolph County and the cost of fixing them within the time frame specified in your open records request,” an attorney with the firm hired to represent the county explained to Levine in an email.
What’s more, Levine noted, it’s been six years since Randolph County and the Justice Department under then-President Barack Obama agreed to a three-year settlement to ensure that the county was, in fact, ADA-compliant. So why close the polling stations now, three years after that settlement was supposed to conclude?
“There’s no reason you would have chosen inaccessible polling places after 2015 when the DOJ already told you not to do that ― and that you would suddenly discover their inaccessibility and close them, which is not what the ADA demands, immediately before an election,” former DOJ attorney Eve Hill, who worked on the Randolph County agreement, told Levine.
But Randolph County isn’t alone when it comes to arbitrary-seeming ADA enforcement as we approach election day. In her testimony to the Randolph County board last week, the ACLU’s Young laid bare the inherent contradiction in using the ADA to essentially deny people their right to cast a ballot.
“We support the requests of community members that the public buildings be brought in compliance with the ADA,” she said. “Closing these polls will not improve access for people with disabilities and will make it harder for everyone in these communities to vote.”
The county has scheduled a vote on August 24 to determine whether to move ahead with the polling station closures.