Polling place

Voters come and go at the polling place at Saks High School in this file photo from 2010. (Stephen Gross/The Anniston Star/file)

The number of polling places in Alabama is shrinking, but Secretary of State John Merrill says the declining numbers don’t necessarily mean it’s getting harder to cast a ballot.

“It depends on the polling place, and it depends on where these people live,” Merrill said.

Alabama is headed for runoff elections July 17, and most statewide offices are on the ballot in the November general elections. In the June primary elections, voters cast ballots at 2,099 polling locations across the state, Merrill said. Merrill said the number was around 2,200 when he took office, though he said he didn’t have exact numbers for the decline.

The Anniston Star contacted Merrill on Wednesday for his response to a recent New York Times story titled “Seven Ways Alabama Has Made it Harder to Vote,” which describes various changes to Alabama election law and policy since 2013, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down some provisions of the Voting Rights Act.

Many of the observations in the story were familiar to critics of Alabama’s voting system: potential voter suppression due to the state’s voter ID law; the closure of driver’s license offices in some counties; and purging of voter rolls. The article also cited a declining number of polling places in Alabama, citing a 2016 report by the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights that found 66 polling places in 18 Alabama counties closed between 2012 and 2016.

“Polling place closures are a particularly pernicious tactic for disenfranchising voters of color,” the report states. Attempts to reach officials of the Leadership Conference for comment were unsuccessful Wednesday.

For decades, under the Voting Rights Act, formerly segregated states had to seek Justice Department approval — known as “preclearance” — for any changes to voting sites that might affect minority access to the ballot. That included decisions to open and close polling places.

A 2013 lawsuit by Shelby County officials changed that. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down the preclearance requirement, making it easier for counties to open and close precincts as they wish.

The report cites four voting precincts closed in Calhoun County. According to past and present voting results, those closed precincts likely include the Piedmont National Guard Armory, the Piedmont Community Building, Moore Avenue Church of Christ in Anniston and Church of the Covenant Presbyterian, also in Anniston.

Merrill said the decision to open or close polling stations is typically in the hands of county officials — in particular the county commission and the probate judge in each county.

“There are probably fewer polling places in Anniston because Anniston isn’t as big as it used to be,” he said.

The city’s population has declined steadily since the closure of Fort McClellan in the 1990s. In recent years, the overall population on Calhoun County has also begun to decline.

The Star’s attempts to reach county administrators and Probate Judge Alice Martin were not successful Wednesday.

The Leadership Conference report also cites one polling-place closure in Cleburne County, Calhoun County’s sparsely populated neighbor.

Probate clerk April Brown said she couldn’t recall a polling-place closure in recent years, though she said the county in the past two decades has shut down some “voting houses.” In rural areas, voting is often done in churches or schools, but parts of Cleburne County were too rural even for that. Brown said that in the past, the county built small buildings around the county just to house poll workers on election days.

“We’ve closed some of the voting houses to move the polling site to places with indoor plumbing and air conditioning,” Brown said. Low turnout at a location might also be a reason to close a voting house, she said. Brown said the last closure she recalled was of a voting house near the Tallapoosa River, a polling location known as Bell’s Mill.

“Part of those folks had to go to Turkey Heaven and part of them had to go to Micaville,” she said. The closures often generate complaints from people who have to drive farther to vote, she said.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.