In the Alabama special election for US Senate seat in December 2017, America woke up to the news of a surprising upset — Democrat Doug Jones emerged victorious against Republican Roy Moore, who was plagued by a series of scandals surrounding alleged pedophilia and incendiary remarks. Credit for the upset in traditionally red Alabama immediately was given to a groundswell of black voters — 96% of whom voted for Jones across the board. Even more astounding was the fact that 98% of black women voted for Jones. While these breakdowns are interesting, what should be getting more attention is how rare it is for black voters to having the voting power to significantly sway elections like this one. Racially motivated policies implemented over the past four years have been chipping away at hard-fought civil rights legislation defending the voting rights minority voters. While some of the most recent measures — voter ID requirements, for example — get their due media coverage, others do not. One policy that has received almost no major coverage is the intentional closure of polling places. This has essentially flown under the radar for most Americans, but poses a huge setback for minority voters hoping to participate in elections.
Alabama has always been a battleground of voting rights, dating back to the 1965 civil rights marches that in part motivated the passage of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act. Despite national policy to reign in race-based voter suppression, recent action by state politicians have taken serious stabs at quietly restricting voting rights yet again. A 2017 report by the Institute for Southern Studies found that through a combination of polling place closures, voter ID laws, and other state laws aimed at restricting voter registration, voter suppression targeted at black voters in particular is ongoing. In Alabama, the report noted that while the state population grew by 2 percent from 2010, there were 7 percent fewer precincts. Although some of these closures can be attributed to increased early voting, the report notes that a good portion of these closures can only be explained by an intentional voting suppression effort.
Alabama is just one example of these subtle policies affecting voting access. Across the south, 868 polling places were closed in time for the 2016 Presidential election. The Leadership Conference Education Fund, the organization which calculated the changes in polling places, found that these closures have an undue effect on minority and low-income voters. The closures are often announced at the last minute, and with limited access to political information or public transportation, minority voters are unduly affected. Furthermore, many of the polling places closed are in dense minority-voter neighborhoods, placing a high cost on voting in the form of long wait-times and travel time, ultimately resulting in depressed turnout. This is true even in small increases in the distance to polling places, a sign of just how powerful these policies can be.
Much of this recent activity can be traced by to the controversial Supreme Court ruling in Shelby County v. Holder in 2013. In a 5-4 decision, the court ruled that Section 4 of the landmark 1965 Voting Rights Act was unconstitutional, taking with it much of the utility of Section 5 of the bill. These two sections comprised the federal government's oversight into specific states, districts, and counties that had a history of suppressing minority voter access. In his opinion, Chief Justice Roberts argued that the length of time that had passed since 1965 made the strict oversight of these specific areas obsolete, and newer assessments of suppression would be required, passing that obligation back to Congress to create a new formula for determining which areas required further scrutiny from the Department of Justice.
Much was made of the Shelby decision, with many politicians and civil rights groups reacting with frustration. Some pointed to the uptick in turnout among Black voters in the South following the 1965 law's passage, and questioned the impact of Shelby on this. Professor David Bateman has noted that this fits with a larger flaw in the American electoral system, handing near unchecked power in regulating voting rights and access to political parties to use for partisan gain. In the end, he argues, the groups that lose from this are non-white and poor Americans. Without the extra oversight into these states and districts from Section 4, there is tons of potential for political leaders to pass laws and change districts maps in racially biased ways. Before the Shelby ruling, Section 4 states and districts were required to give substantial notice about any changes to polling places and consult minority community groups before making any changes. Without these restrictions in place, voters are often left without any notification about changes to polling places, and thus without access to voting at all.
The lack of notice given compounds another pre-existing problem of the quality of precincts. One research paper noted that low-quality polling places — ones that are less accessible and are staffed with poorly-informed poll workers — discourage turnout, and are more often found in low-income and non-white neighborhoods. As more polling places close, resulting in greater lines at fewer places that are on the whole less well-managed, the costs of voting for minority voters only continue to rise, further discouraging their turnout.
In the Alabama special election, these costs were clearly not high enough to stop the tide of black voters in their near-unanimous support of Jones. One of the common Democratic reactions to the results were to thank black women for their votes, followed by a number of responses demanding political support for black women in more practical ways. One way to do that would be to push for electoral reform wherever possible, so minority voters have equal access to the right to vote. There are several ways to achieve this: increasing greater pressure to pass a law with a new formula for regions of the US to be covered under Section 5 of the VRA (although two bills to do this have been proposed, neither has received much attention); beginning a grassroots reform movement to spur change on this topic (media coverage has been incredibly limited). The Alabama special election should serve as a strong motivator for politicians to push for more just voting rights policy. That these institutional measures did not stop black Alabamans from having their opinions heard is remarkable, but should not take away from the lasting power that politicians have to minimize black voters' power in elections and the work that remains unfinished in righting these injustices.