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2012's Newest Voter Suppression Trend: Close Polling Places, Don't Tell Voters

Polling Place cutbacks portend a perfect storm for voters on Election Day.
 
 
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As in real estate, when it comes to polling places the three most important factors are location, location, location. The closer to home the polling place is located, the more likely that citizens will vote. In this important election year, however, many budget-strapped states are cutting back on locations, particularly in low-income and minority neighborhoods.  

It’s a troubling development that could negatively impact participation in November.  

This week in Omaha, Nebraska, voters and voting rights advocates are protesting the closing of more than 100 polling locations—-over half the locations in Omaha—-by Douglas County Election Commissioner Dave Phipps. Outraged citizens say the decisions were made without citizen input, and primarily affect communities with the highest percentage of minorities.  
 
Nebraskans for Civic Reform conducted an analysis and found that minority populations were disproportionately affected by the new polling locations. (They are part of a coalition that includes: Omaha NAACP, Heartland Workers Center, OLA-Allied Latino Organizations, Nebraska League of Women Voters, North Omaha Voter Coalition, Nebraska ACLU, MYLPA, Latino American Commission, Black Men United, Nebraska AARP, Nebraska Appleseed).
 
“The three legislative districts with the highest minority populations are districts 5, 7 and 11. Those districts also rank as the fewest, second fewest, and fourth fewest in number of precincts and thus polling locations,” says Adam Morfeld, executive director of Nebraskans for Civic Reform. "It may very well be that Commissioner Phipps did not have discriminatory intent, but his actions or lack thereof have a discriminatory effect."

 
Suppressing Turnout? 
While more and more states have reduced polling locations in an attempt to save money, the voting rights community is concerned that closed polling locations, the resulting long lines, lack of plans for communicating with voters about their new poll sites, and new strict photo ID rules could produce the perfect storm for Election Day. 
 
Taken together, voters may be too frustrated by the hoops and hurdles they need to jump through--and simply not vote. 
 
In Omaha, Commission Phipps has no plans to make voting more accessible and convenient, saying he is unwilling to send out additional early voting request cards and other educational materials to voters to mitigate the impact of the closings. 
 
“We have done the research and we have determined that about 20 percent of our constituents don’t have cars. And there are additional residents who don’t have reliable transportation,” said Ben Gray, a member of the Omaha City Council, in an interview with BET.com about the planned closures. 
 
“It leaves me thinking that this is part of a national trend by Republicans to minimize the African-American vote,” he said. “It’s not just going to affect the vote in this November’s presidential election. It’s going to suppress the vote far beyond that.”
 


In 2010, voting rights advocates in Fresno, California pointed to disproportionate polling place cuts as suppressive. According to the Fresno Bee, in gubernatorial elections in 1998, 2002 and 2006, Fresno County's turnout was 1.4 to 3.2 percentage points below the state average. In 2010, after the closures, voting in Fresno was 7.4 percentage points below the average. Critics said that the closings disproportionately impacted the lower-income residents of southern Fresno.
 


The issue potentially affects both sides of the political aisle. Last year, State Representative Rich Morthland of Moline, IL, a Republican, accused the Democratic County Clerk of closing polling centers in traditional Republican strongholds. 


 
Location, Location, Location

A 2003 study by Political Scientists Moshe Haspel of Spelman College in Atlanta and H. Gibbs Knotts of Western Carolina University found that even a small increase in the distance between home and the ballot box causes a significant decline in the likelihood that an individual will show up on Election Day. 
 
They found that in the typical Atlanta neighborhood, registered voters who lived within a few blocks of their polling places were 10 percentage points more likely to vote than those who lived seven-tenths of a mile from their polling places. 
 
Research Scientist Kenneth F. McCue of the California Institute of Technology found similar results when he studied location of the polls and voting patterns. His data show a pattern of decreases in voting for non-whites as distance from the polling place increases.
 


“While the need to balance the budget is understandable, the right to vote is priceless,” says Michael Slater, executive director of Project Vote. “Election officials need to carefully consider the negative impact of these closures, and citizens, voting rights advocates, and the media need to keep a close eye on whether these decisions—whether accidentally or intentionally—have a disproportionate impact on particular communities.”
 

Sarah Massey is a spokeswoman for Project Vote. Project Vote is a national nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)(3) that works to empower, educate, and mobilize low-income, minority, youth, and other marginalized and under-represented voters.