AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
People in a rural area of south Georgia could have a harder time voting this November. Randolph County is set to decide tomorrow whether to close seven of its nine polling stations. Adding to the tension over this plan is a historic contest for governor in the state. Johnny Kauffman of member station WABE brings us the story.
JOHNNY KAUFFMAN, BYLINE: Randolph County sits about three hours south of Atlanta. The area is known for its vast peanut and cotton fields and a violent history of enslavement and voter suppression. Today, about 63 percent of the county's small population is black. The poverty rate is more than double the national average.
BOBBY FUSE: Thank you for showing your support.
KAUFFMAN: About 75 people opposing the poll closures gathered last night at a restaurant to organize.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing) Ain't going to let nobody turn me around.
KAUFFMAN: Bobby Fuse is an activist in the region. Fuse and civil rights groups argue closing the polling places would make voting especially difficult for African-Americans and people with low incomes.
FUSE: The people that we work against on a daily basis since emancipation no longer put up white-only signs and colored-only signs. They do other things.
KAUFFMAN: One voter at the rally, Dianne Jones, lives in Benevolence. It's a small community in northern Randolph County. If the polling place there closes, it would mean a 15-minute drive for people to vote on Election Day. Jones says the problem is some people in Benevolence can't afford a car.
DIANNE JONES: No jobs, no jobs, no jobs - you can't get - yes, get some just like that. You can't have a job.
KAUFFMAN: Randolph County's proposal to close polling places was quickly entangled in the politics of Georgia's race for governor, which is just a little more than two months away.
SANDRA WILLIS: First thing - there's a black person running for governor.
KAUFFMAN: Sandra Willis stuck around after the rally died down. She says Republicans are worried they can't beat strong candidates like Democrat Stacey Abrams.
WILLIS: They can't stop us all, but they're going to try to stop the ones that they can by closing the precincts.
KAUFFMAN: Abrams would be the first black female governor in the country. She says Randolph County should not close the polling places. The Republican candidate in the governor's race is Secretary of State Brian Kemp. He's in charge of elections in Georgia.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MIKE MALONE: Consolidation has become highly recommended by the secretary of state.
KAUFFMAN: That's election consultant Mike Malone at a recent meeting in Randolph County. Today the county announced plans to end its contract with Malone. At the earlier meeting, though, Malone read from a slide that says Kemp endorsed his plan to close seven polling places.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MALONE: The trend in Georgia and other states is to reduce the polling places to reduce election cost, which is natural.
KAUFFMAN: The secretary of state's office denies it had anything to do with Malone and the county's proposal. And Kemp says he staunchly opposes it. Malone did not respond to calls or text messages. The politics of the whole situation are murky at best. Randolph County is controlled by Democrats, and Republicans argue it's all a scheme to keep their voters from the polls. Tommy Coleman is the county's lawyer. He says the county is not trying to make voting more difficult.
TOMMY COLEMAN: You know, if I was going to suppress voters, I probably would not choose a county the size of Randolph to create this controversy about 'cause as a practical matter, it would have a marginal effect on the election, I suppose.
KAUFFMAN: Coleman says closing some polls makes sense, but it needs more research. Civil rights groups are threatening lawsuits if the county approves the plan on Friday. For NPR News, I'm Johnny Kauffman in Cuthbert, Ga.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.