Calls to "get out and vote" are common during elections. Yet while candidates spend countless speeches urging voters to turn up at the polls, U.S. voter turnout continues to trail that of most developed countries. Given the emphasis placed on voting, it seems counterintuitive to eliminate polling places. Yet, at least 868 polling locations have been closed ahead of this year's election, according to a new report.
In 2013, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 to strike down a portion of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) aimed at preventing racial discrimination at the ballot box, thus eliminating federal oversight of election laws in areas with a history of voting discrimination. Since the ruling, many states have approved new voting restrictions, including controversial voter ID laws and reduced early voting periods. And on Nov. 8 voters will head to the polls in the first election in 50 years to be held without the full protection of the VRA.
While complicated new voting restrictions could certainly lead to longer lines at the polls, there's another reason you might find it takes longer to cast your ballot this year: poll closures. A new report from civil rights group the Leadership Conference Education Fund found at least 868 polling locations have been closed ahead of the 2016 election.
In their report, The Great Poll Closure, the Leadership Conference Education Fund examined just 381 of the 800 counties previously covered in Section 5 of the VRA and found 43 percent of them had cut polling locations since the SCOTUS ruling. Many of the closures have occurred in key battleground states like Arizona, where nearly every county has closed polling locations. Other states shown to have made significant cutbacks in their number of polling places are Louisiana, where 61 percent of parishes eliminate a total of 103 polling locations, and Texas, where 403 locations have been shuttered across the state.
"While there are legitimate reasons to reduce polling places and processes that election officials can engage in to ensure that consolidations are implemented equitably, without the full powers of the VRA we have no transparency and no idea why polling places are being closed or changed." Nancy Zirkin, executive vice president of The Leadership Conference Education Fund, said in a statement.
The Leadership Conference Education Fund claims closing polling places is a tactic regularly used to disenfranchise minority voters. "Decisions to shutter or reduce voting locations are often made quietly and at the last minute, making pre-election intervention or litigation virtually impossible," their report states. "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."
It's important to note that due to limitations in available data the report was able to analyze poll closures in a little less than half of the counties previously covered by Section 4 and 5 of the VRA. Meaning there may be hundreds of additional polling locations closed this election that go unreported. Those in states with documented polling location closures should double check their polling place ahead of election day and come up with a plan for how and when they'll cast their ballot.