On Tuesday, May 26, a few dozen citizens gathered at Macon’s Union Baptist Church on Taylor Street and engaged in dialogue with an eight-member ‘citizen advisory panel’ in an effort to discuss the Macon-Bibb Board of Elections’ efforts to significantly reduce polling locations primarily in majority-black, majority Democratic, low-income neighborhoods. The citizen advisory panel led by Quinton Tard has pushed the narrative that the Board of Elections need to make budget cuts and consolidating polling locations would save approximately $40,000. The projected 2016 budget is $147 million.
Even though the overwhelming community response has been against polling consolidation dating back to January 2015, Macon’s mayor Robert Reichert — who is up for re-election in early 2016– has been the chief advocate for reducing polling locations and had worked quietly behind the scenes without much sustained public opposition from elected officials on this issue.
Reichert, as mayor, has the power to nominate locals to various boards, including the Board of Elections. Despite opposition to proposed plans to consolidate polling places, Reichert preceded in choosing the fifth member of the Board of Elections — Mike Kaplan, a registered independent who generally supports Republican candidates and incumbents. Kaplan’s name was put forth as Reichert’s choice to replace Barbara Clowers on April 7 and had a brief discussion on April 14. Subsequently, on April 21, Kaplan was approved by the full commission. Kaplan did not face much opposition from the Board of Commissioners and was approved to fulfill a four-year term. The Macon Telegraph reported Elaine Lucas tried to table the resolution and Bert Bivins had raised questions about the process. However, Reichert didn’t want a debate on the fifth Board of Elections member due to the large number of candidates for that position.
In essence, Mike Kaplan is likely to be the deciding vote on whether polling locations will be consolidated in majority-black neighborhoods. And the Bibb County Commissioners who represent majority-black precincts (District 2, 3, 5, 8 and 9) chose not to publicly talk about this with their constituents prior to April 21 meeting or even request further discussion on Kaplan’s nomination. Kaplan’s nomination should not have been a quick up or down vote. At the very least, Kaplan’s nomination should have been postponed to a later date and more public input should have been garnered.
The Bibb Commission vote to unanimously approve Kaplan has helped to set the stage for June 9 or 11 when the Board of Elections will likely attempt to push this poll consolidation plan through.
If Reichert and the Board of Elections get their way, it will cause confusion early next year and this will impact primarily African-American voters. Even though Reichert may not face any opposition for mayor, but other political races will be impacted such as Board of Commissioners and Board of Education races. Most of these races could be very close and if Macon-Bibb voters are confused about their voting places and vote incorrectly, could the State of Georgia led by Secretary of State Brian Kemp wrongly accuse people of voter fraud? We have witnessed political witchhunt such as the Quitman 10 situation in South Georgia.
Most polling places that support Republicans have not been affected. So why should African-Americans here in Macon-Bibb be disenfranchised over $40,000?
Elaine Lucas, who attended the Union Baptist Church meeting, also spoke to Central Georgia’s largest television station and said the following:
“People need to become comfortable with their voting place, they need to know where it is, they need to prepare ahead of time,” Lucas said. “What we need to be doing is not frustrating voters or making it harder for them by changing their polling places, what we need to be doing is setting up an additional early voting site, which is something that I’m going to be work on.”
Reichert’s efforts to reconstruct Macon-Bibb polling locations began with the help of Steve Allen– the previously disputed Democratic member of the Bibb County Election Board– who wrote a September 4, 2014 letter to Macon mayor Robert Reichert and stated that he is compelled to honor the request of the Board of Elections’ Financial Budget Strategic Planning Committee to reduce voting locations in an effort ” to help minimize budgetary cost”.
Reichert forwarded Allen’s official request with his own correspondence dated September 8, 2014 to the majority-conservative governmental entity –the Middle Georgia Regional Commission. Reichert wrote that his letter should be viewed as a local assistance request to the commission to draft a new map with fewer polling locations and new precinct boundaries.
The Middle Georgia Regional Commission is a regional planning and development agency serving the communities of Central Georgia since 1965. The MGRC provides technical assistance to the local governments of the twenty-one cities and eleven counties located in Middle Georgia. Bibb County currently has forty precincts and polling locations, but there are efforts to reduce the number of precincts to 26 precincts.