The Camden County Board of Elections and Registration (BoER) is considering changes to voting precinct boundaries. They have appointed a New Precinct Opportunities Committee to address concerns from the public and elections officials.
The NPOC had its first meeting in June, when it began discussions about improving efficiency at Camden County’s polling locations. The nine-member committee is composed of three members of the Board of Elections and Registration (BoER), three BoER staff members, one representative each from the Camden County Democratic and Republican parties, and one honorary member.
BoER elections supervisor and NPOC chair Shannon Nettles says that the NPOC’s discussions were prompted by uneven voter turnout throughout polling locations in the county. Easing voting traffic at busy locations and increasing traffic at others makes the voting experience smoother, and also more economically sustainable.
“If you’ve got four poll workers there all day long, and they serve 35 voters, that’s a lot of money that the county’s spending,” said Kyle Rapp, the BoER chair and NPOC representative, at the NPOC’s July 17th meeting.
Changing precinct lines could either help or harm voting rights in the county, said Clara Harden, another BoER representative on NPOC member, and treasurer of the NAACP Camden branch. The NAACP will continue to provide input as these conversations and planning develop. “Hopefully, we’re going to minimize the impact to the at-risk voters,” she said.
The NPOC will finalize their recommendations by Oct. 12 at the latest. Its next public meetings will be held July 31, Aug. 14, and Aug. 28 at 10 a.m. in the Historic Courtroom at 200 E. 4th Street in Woodbine.
The committee will also hold public hearings, which are required before the BoER changes precinct lines. They currently have two hearings scheduled for September 6th, one in the morning and one in the evening. Their specific times and locations are still to be determined.
What does a precinct change mean?
Voting precincts are the geographical areas that group voters with polling locations. Under title 21 of Georgia state law, the BoER can change voting precincts if it will “promote the convenience of the electors and the public interest.”
For example, if a precinct contains more than 2,000 voters and some have to stand in line for over an hour after the polls close, the superintendent must divide the precinct or provide more polling equipment before the next election.
The NPOC was created to look into potential precinct changes, and the BoER will approve or reject them by Oct. 19. Kevin Walker, chair of the Camden County NAACP’s political action committee, expressed his support for the creation of this committee. “If there’s something that the BoER missed, then this group can bring that to the board, and it can be addressed, and not overlooked,” he said.
In some cases, precinct changes can help make voting more accessible for low-income people or other communities with higher barriers to voting, said Harden. In other cases, they can contribute to voter suppression. “Socioeconomic status … really goes back and has the biggest impact on voter registration and voter participation,” she said. “That’s the group you least want to impact, because you know the challenge they have in voting, with changes in the law.”
Walker says that people should consider precinct line changes by asking: “is [it] going to help benefit the voters when you move those locations? Or are we doing this more so to benefit the board of elections?”
The NPOC’s earlier discussions included the proposition to change the polling location for North St. Marys by combining it with the West St. Marys precinct. However, some members of the NPOC and the NAACP chapter raised the concern that this shift would further restrict voting access in North St. Marys. This area is predominantly Black and low income, and barriers to voting there are already high, Harden said. The NPOC has since decided against this change, and will not be moving the North St. Marys polling location.
“We’ve been very proactive with helping our board of elections find solutions for polling locations,” said Walker.“[We’re] making sure that the voices of our citizens, they’re heard when things like this occur during election times.”
In its July 17th meeting, the NPOC discussed two main shifts to precinct lines: moving around 800 voters from the northern part of Mush Bluff precinct into the North St. Marys precinct, and splitting the East Kingsland precinct into two.
Change in discussion: Mush Bluff and North St. Marys
In voter turnout data obtained for the general election every other year since 2012, North St. Marys precinct has seen the lowest turnout among registered Camden County voters every election. In the November 2å018 general election, North St. Marys had a 31.70% turnout. The second lowest that election was the Kingsland precinct with a 46.73% turnout, and the highest was in West St. Marys at 69.17%.
In order to keep the polling location in North St. Marys open, more voters need to use it, said Dennis Irvin, NPOC member and BoER mapping and GIS lead. “We’re trying to find a way to have that polling location continue to be feasible to run, while also getting more people to the polls,” he said. One idea is that voters at Elliott’s Bluff, located on the north end of the Mush Bluff precinct, could be moved into the North St. Marys precinct to increase turnout there.
Elliott’s Bluff wouldn’t be heavily impacted by this shift as it has consistently high voter turnout and isn’t located far from St. Marys Church, the polling location for North St. Marys precinct, Irvin said.
Dr. Jannett Bradford, NPOC Democratic representative, also emphasized the importance of increasing the net number of people voting in the North St. Marys precinct. In respect to determining a polling location, “the best place to get them is to go and knock on doors and encourage them to vote,” she said.
Harden also pointed to the fact that voter turnout in the precinct could increase by registering more people to vote. “More than anything, it’s a concern that so few people in that area participate,” she said.
Past polling changes at Mush Bluff
The NPOC also says this change will be helpful because it will alleviate high traffic at Mush Bluff’s polling location, Agapé Church, which also serves as the polling location for the St. Marys precinct. While Mush Bluff and St. Marys are separate precincts by law, they have shared the same polling location since 2019.
This change came about when the Georgia secretary of state’s office pushed counties to move polling places out of schools and fire stations due to safety concerns. When the board couldn’t find an alternative to the elementary school that served as the polling location in St. Marys precinct, they shifted that precinct’s voters to the same new polling spot as those in Mush Bluff — the Agapé church — said Nettles.
The same polling place consolidation happened with the Browntown and Kingsland precincts, which are also separate by law but vote in the same polling location, the Harbor Worship Center.
Consolidations like these can make voting more difficult for people, said Walker. For some people, those changes were the difference between being able to walk to the polls and having to find a ride.
Walker saw the 2019 consolidations as a disruption to the norm for many. “I know the conversations were being had,” he said. However, Walker said that though a shift is notable for some, the BoER “may not see that.”
Change in discussion: East Kingsland
The NPOC also discussed changes to the East Kingsland precinct at its July 17th meeting. East Kingsland has some of the highest voter turnout numbers in the county. In the November 2022 general election, there were 7,179 registered voters, and 3,583 ballots cast from East Kingsland. At this time, the second highest number of registered voters in the county was 3,281 in the St. Marys precinct.
While the polling location for East Kingsland operates smoothly despite high numbers, Nettles said, the committee is discussing whether it may be beneficial to split the precinct into two due to its high numbers.
‘You might miss some of the things that are important to them’
As the NPOC discusses precinct line changes, they consider factors such as parking, traffic, and affiliations of potential polling locations. There’s always the potential that barriers will go under people’s radar in conversations like these, said Harden.
“You never know, because you get a group of people in the room. And when you’re in a different socioeconomic class than maybe quite a few of your constituents, then you might miss some of the things that are important to them,” she said. “There’s always that blind spot that you’re just not aware of. It’s not intentional, but it sometimes happens.”
For this reason, she said, public input on proposed changes is essential. It can help create that “‘aha’ moment, like ‘oh, we didn’t consider that.’”
More broadly, Harden says, the changes in question are about the way that people in power communicate with the people who their decisions will impact. She noted that the BoER “depends too much” on people finding information on websites or social media, especially as broadband access isn’t everywhere in rural Georgia.
“If we want to use the media to communicate to our constituents, then we need to put the infrastructure in place so that they have access. Otherwise, we’re not helping them,” she said. “You can talk all you want, but if you’re not reaching the people who need to hear it the most, then you fail to communicate.”