Next week, Americans will hold the first presidential election in 50 years without the full protections of the Voting Rights Act.
It’s a terrifying fact. The Voting Rights Act targeted policies that purposely kept black voters from the polls. But the US Supreme Court struck down part of the law in 2013, limiting the federal government’s oversight of states with long histories of suppressing minority voters.
As a result, states have passed more voting restrictions over the past several years — including controversial voter ID laws and cutbacks on early voting days and hours.
But a new report from the Leadership Conference Education Fund, a civil rights organization, finds another potential effect: Counties previously monitored through the Voting Rights Act have closed down at least 868 polling places since the Supreme Court’s decision — a 16 percent reduction among the counties analyzed in the study. And out of 381 counties in the study, about 43 percent of them cut back on voting locations. (The report only looked at about half of the counties previously covered by the Voting Rights Act due to some limitations in the available data.)
The report explains this could have a disproportionate effect on minority voters:
Polling place closures are a particularly common and pernicious tactic for disenfranchising voters of color. Decisions to shutter or reduce voting locations are often made quietly and at the last minute, making pre-election intervention or litigation virtually impossible. These changes can place an undue burden on minority voters, who may be less likely to have access to public transportation or vehicles, given continuing disparities in socioeconomic resources. Once an election is conducted, there is no judicial remedy for the loss of votes that were never cast because a voter’s usual polling place has disappeared.
Prior to the Supreme Court’s decision, the federal government could oversee state and local governments’ decisions to shut down polling places to ensure they weren’t meant to disenfranchise minority voters. Today, the federal government’s power is limited.
The Leadership Conference Education Fund’s report acknowledges there are valid reasons for shutting down polling places, particularly budget constraints. Especially if states allow far more early voting or otherwise offer better accessibility to the polls, it might make sense to consolidate some polling places to avoid overspending. These are the kinds of considerations the federal government could make before, but now can’t due to the Supreme Court’s decision — leaving these decisions almost entirely to highly partisan, potentially racist state and local governments.
It’s unclear just what impact this will have on the election. The research tends to show that making voting harder, whether through voter ID laws or by limiting early voting, has a small to no effect on voter turnout — likely only swinging elections that are really, really close. (The biggest hurdle to getting people to vote, MIT political science professor Adam Berinsky wrote for the Stanford Social Innovation Review, seems to be getting people interested in elections.)
But the shutdown of at least hundreds of polling places certainly seems like it could have a significant impact — especially in a close swing state like North Carolina. And even if it doesn’t have a big impact on the election, it’s totally antithetical to what a democracy or republic should aim for.