A national civil rights organization has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice demanding it investigate claims by some residents in Daphne’s heavily minority voting districts that the city’s recent polling place consolidation plan amounts to the disenfranchisement of black voters.
In March, the Daphne City Council voted 4-3 to approve a redistricting plan and the consolidation of polling places from five locations to just two citywide. With the new plan, residents in Districts 1-5 will vote at the Daphne Civic Center, while the remaining two districts will vote at Daphne High School’s Trojan Hall.
Longtime Daphne resident and former board of registrars member Eartha Martin said residents in District 1, where she lives, used to have just a short distance to travel to vote at the former Boys and Girls Club building. The new plan will require voters in District 1 to travel farther north to the Civic Center, which Martin said would be difficult for some minorities in the district who live without adequate transportation.
“I’m worried that some people in the district just won’t be able to go the added distance,” Martin said. “Some voters here don’t own a car, but they used to be able to walk or ride a bike to the polls. But now they may not be able to do that because of the added distance and the difficulty of crossing 98.”
To Martin, it is unfair that voters in District 1 are being asked to travel a greater distance to vote while others in the city will still be allowed to vote in the same place they always have for municipal elections.
“This is about fairness,” she said. “Our polling place used to be right here in our neighborhood. It was close enough to walk.”
An April 13 letter from the Voting Rights Institute to the DOJ claims the consolidation is an example of discrimination. Written by VRI Executive Director J. Gerald Hebert, the letter argues the city of Daphne did not consider the effects of the voting age population in each district and did not adequately inform black community leaders about those effects before passing the resolution.
The letter further claims the reduction in the number of polling locations places an increased and disproportionate burden on members of Daphne’s black community.
“We are concerned that these actions will provide minorities with less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate in the political process, and call upon the Department of Justice to investigate these matters without delay,” Herbert wrote. “The new polling location for Districts 1 and 3 at the Daphne Civic Center is more than two miles away from the old location in 1. Meanwhile, residents of Daphne’s least racially diverse districts will continue to vote at their existing location.”
A similar letter from the VRI to the Daphne City Council asks councilors to reconsider the decision to reduce the number of polling places in the city, saying the plan will increase travel time for residents in the city’s districts most heavily populated by minorities.
“We believe the voting rights of the city’s electorate would be best served by reinstating the polling locations, particularly those that serve areas of the city where there are substantial concentrations of black voters,” the letter reads.
The VRI’s letter to the Daphne City Council was written on behalf of the Southern Coalition for Justice’s client, the Baldwin County Martin Luther King Celebration Committee, whose president, Willie Williams, has been a mayoral candidate and frequent and vocal critic of the city.
Williams said the plan amounts to “minority vote dilution” and because the city has single-member districts instead of at-large districts, it should be required to have polling places in each district.
“A lot of people are upset about this,” he said. “We are asking the City Council to reconsider its action because it will dilute the minority vote in the city. Under single-member districts, you should always have a polling location available in each district.”
Baldwin County NAACP President Alec Barnett agreed, saying the polling place consolidation will adversely affect Daphne’s minority population.
“There are a lot of people who live in District 1 and 3 who are older, and they don’t all have adequate transportation,” Barnett said. “Before, they could walk to the polling place but when you add a mile or two to the distance, I’m afraid that will discourage them from going to vote at all.”
In March, councilors John Lake, Pat Rudicell and Tommie Conaway voted against the polling place consolidation. The plan’s supporters were councilors Randy Fry, Robin LeJeune, Ron Scott and Angie Phillips.
This week, Fry said the City Council never intended to discriminate against anyone and the effort was made in order to make the voting process easier and more consistent. According to Fry, the Civic Center is where voters already cast ballots for state and national elections, and using the same location for city elections should be less confusing than having a different polling location in each district.
“This is not some plan to discriminate against anyone,” Fry said. “We are trying to make the voting process more convenient and less confusing. The Civic Center is a central location, and most people are already voting for state and national elections there.”
According to Fry, while the City Council defends its decision, it will comply with any resulting DOJ investigation.
“It never hurts to have a legal opinion on whether we are doing things appropriately or not, but we feel like we are in the right,” Fry said. “But there was absolutely no intent to discriminate against anyone.”
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