CUTHBERT, Ga. — The consultant, a white man, came to the mainly black Randolph County in rural southern Georgia and recommended that it eliminate seven of its nine polling places. He said the move would save the county money. He said the polling places had disability compliance issues.
But many people in the county assumed a more sinister motive, especially with the state in the midst of a hotly contested election for governor. It pits a Democrat who would be Georgia’s first black chief executive against a white Republican who has been called a “master of voter suppression” by his political opponents.
“I think it was an effort to suppress the vote,” Bobby Jenkins, 66, a retired Randolph County school superintendent, said after a meeting on Wednesday where local residents complained that African-Americans in poor rural areas would be left having to drive long distances to vote. “This is one typical strategy in the Republican playbooks.”
The Randolph County plan was rejected Friday morning on a 2-0 vote by the county’s board of elections. The two members, a black woman and a white man, voted hastily and without comment, leaving a press statement that acknowledged the interest from the news media, residents and civil rights groups.
“The interest and concern shown has been overwhelming, and it is an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle,” it said.
But some say it may not be the last flash point over voting access in Georgia.
Mistrust and bad blood permeate what is shaping up to be a historic election for governor. In the years leading up to the showdown between Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state, and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic former state House minority leader, Georgia has been caught up in one controversy after another, locally and statewide, over election integrity, voting access and race.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been sending its members to observe meetings of other local election commissions across the state, and to watch for similar proposals that could curtail voter access, according to Andrea Young, the executive director of the group’s Georgia chapter.
“We sort of anticipated a bit of what’s happening in Randolph County, that there might be efforts to close polls ahead of this election,” Ms. Young said.
The two candidates, Mr. Kemp and Ms. Abrams, have squared off over voting rights before. As secretary of state, Mr. Kemp has overseen Georgia’s elections since 2010. He is a fervent fan of President Trump, who has made numerous baseless claims about voter fraud.
For years, Mr. Kemp’s critics in Georgia, including Ms. Abrams, have accused him of supporting policies that adversely affect minority voters and contravene federal law. They also say he has conducted overzealous investigations of voter registration groups, including one founded by Ms. Abrams. The state’s Democratic Party has called on him to resign his current office in order to ensure an impartial election.Mr. Kemp has insisted that he had nothing to do with the plan to close polling places in Randolph County, and wrote to the county advising it not to go ahead with the plan.
Unfettered access to the polls for minority voters is vital to Ms. Abrams’s election campaign. She has adopted a strategy that relies less on wooing conservative white Democrats in the countryside, as her party has done in the past, and more on a surge of highly motivated liberals and nonwhite voters, in an increasingly diverse state: By 2030, non-Hispanic whites are expected to make up less than half the population.
For decades, the federal government acted as a referee on voting issues in the Deep South under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the Supreme Court sharply curtailed federal oversight in a 2013 decision.Before that ruling, a polling-place consolidation proposal like the one that has rocked Randolph County would almost certainly have been subject to preclearance review by the Justice Department, with the county obliged to show that it would not disproportionately disadvantage minority voters.Mike Malone, an independent election consultant who recommended the polling-place closings, had been hired by the county earlier this year to help it with voting logistics after the county elections superintendent resigned.In community meetings last week, Mr. Malone said that the seven polling places were not heavily used — just 12 people voted at one of them in a recent election — and that some did not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.But when the word got out about his proposal, it struck many as drastic. The civil liberties union wrote to the county that the plan would make it “disproportionately harder” for black voters to cast a ballot. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law threatened to sue, arguing that closing the polling places over accessibility made little sense.
“Forcing elderly, disabled, and other persons with mobility issues to travel lengthy distances to vote is out of place with the purported goal of A.D.A. compliance,” its lawyers wrote to the county.
As Friday’s vote neared, it became difficult to find anyone, Democrat or Republican, who supported the proposal. On Wednesday, the county attorney sent a letter terminating the county’s contract with Mr. Malone.
Suspicion also spread that Mr. Kemp was somehow behind the recommendation — a claim he adamantly denies.A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, Candice Broce, said that an official in her office had recommended Mr. Malone to the county as a qualified election expert, but that he was one of several consultants mentioned.
In public meetings, Mr. Malone has shown a slide saying that a policy of consolidating polling places “has come highly recommended by the secretary of state.” But Ms. Broce said that Mr. Kemp’s office urged the county to abandon Mr. Malone’s plan.