Civil rights groups warned on Monday that a decision by election officials in Georgia to shutter numerous early-voting sites ahead of the state's Senate runoff elections would disproportionately impact people of color.
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the ACLU's Georgia branch and other groups said in a letter that the decision to close six of the 11 early-voting sites that were used for the November general election in Cobb County, which borders Atlanta, "will be harmful to Cobb County's Black and Latinx voters because many of the locations are in Black and Latinx communities."
The county, which is home to more than 537,000 voters, will have just five polling sites when early voting kicks off on December 14. Along with Cobb County, three of the other 10 most populous counties in the state will reduce their early voting locations, according to NBC News.
Many of the closed sites are located in minority areas, the groups said. In some cases, the nearest available polling site will be up to 12 miles away with inadequate transportation options. The groups called on election officials to keep the same number of early-voting locations as it had during the general election.
Janine Eveler, the Cobb County elections director, told the groups that she does not have enough trained staff to maintain the general election locations for the runoffs, according to The Washington Post.
"We lost several of our advance voting managers and assistant managers due to the holidays, the workload and the pandemic," she said in her response to the groups. "The remaining team members who agreed to work would do so only if the hours were less onerous. … We are at the end of the election cycle and many are tired or just unwilling to work so hard, especially during this time of year."
Eveler told the Post that many trained election workers are "not willing to work 14-hour days for six days a week for three weeks."
The early voting period in Georgia was marred by hours-long lines. Some voters had to endure waits of up to 10 hours to vote. Eveler told the Post that the county would add more check-in stations to speed up the lines but the civil rights groups argued the delays showed that the areas need more polling places, not fewer.
Cobb County, which voted for President-elect Joe Biden by a 56-42 margin, is expected to be key in deciding the runoff races between Sen. David Perdue, R-Ga., and Democrat Jon Ossoff and Sen. Kelly Loeffler, R-Ga., and Rev. Raphael Warnock. Ossoff carried Cobb County in the general election by 11 points while Warnock got 38% of the vote in the county to Loeffler's 25% in a field of 21 candidates.
Though runoff elections generally get less attention than general elections, the two races will determine which party controls the Senate when Biden takes office. Nearly 1 million voters have already requested mail-in ballots for the runoff elections, according to election officials. About 1.3 million mail-in votes were cast in November's general election, which Biden led by about a 400,000-vote margin.
Michael Pernick, an attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, told the Post that the groups were considering next steps to "protect communities of color in Cobb County that would have significant difficulty accessing advance voting if that plan goes through."
Pernick said that four locations in the southern part of the county, where many of the region's Black and Latino voters live, have been folded into a single site that is "all the way at the bottom of south Cobb and is not accessible to many of the voters in those communities."
Eveler denied that people of color would be harmed by the closures, telling the Post that there would be early-voting sites in "each quadrant of the county" and that voters have "other options for voting," like mail-in ballots.
Lauren Groh-Wargo, the head of the voting rights group Fair Fight Action, disputed Eveler's argument, noting that "Black voters in particular" have been impacted by hours-long lines in the county.
"In an election that is sure to see high turnout and high voter enthusiasm, this is unacceptable," she said in a statement to the Post.
The state's two largest counties, DeKalb and Gwinnett, will maintain the same number of early-voting locations as they had in the general election. Chatham County, the fifth biggest county in the state, plans to close one early-voting site. Forsyth County, the eighth most populous county in the state, will shutter six of the 11 early-voting sites it used during the general election. Hall County, the tenth largest county, will shutter four of the eight early-voting sites. Biden carried Chatham by 18 points while Trump carried Forsyth and Hall Counties by big double-digit leads.
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger's office said it was not involved in the decisions.
"They set their budgets and manage turnout of voters accordingly," Deputy Secretary of State Jordan Fuchs told NBC News.
The outlet added that county budgets may have played a role in the closures after they were forced to pay for two recounts, including one requested by the Trump campaign.
Georgia Republicans have also called to toughen voting rules, though Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican, shot down the idea of implementing new rules before the runoff. Raffensperger, who has drawn praise for standing up to Trump's baseless attacks on the state's election, has backed Republican complaints about an election that saw no major irregularities or evidence of fraud. He called for absentee ballot rules to be tightened, drawing allegations of "voter suppression" from Democratic leaders.
Georgia has repeatedly been accused of voter suppression by civil rights groups after the state systemically shuttered more than 200 polling sites after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013.
"This is what real election rigging looks like," Michael McDonald, an election expert at the University of Florida, said after the latest Cobb County closures.
Rev. Dr. William Barber, an NAACP board member and co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, cited the report to hit out at Trump's unfounded claims of voter fraud in the state.
"Voter suppression," he wrote, "is the real fraud."