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Plans to close all but one polling station in rural Georgia count echoes through a battlefield state

Several Democrats have been thrown out of the board. A reconstituted board eliminated Sunday's vote during a recent local election - an option popular with black churchgoers, an important democratic constituency.

"What is happening in Georgia with the winding up of these county election boards is an extreme example of the national tendency in Republican-controlled states to undermine local election officials," said Jonathan Diaz, senior legal adviser on voting rights at the non-partisan Campaign. Legal Center. which is in favor of broad access to the ballot paper.

And it's not likely to stop there. New bills targeting election operations have emerged in Georgia, a state with high competition this year for governor and a seat in the U.S. Senate.

While fights over voting closures often get little attention, Diaz said, "the procedures that go on behind the scenes can really affect whether your vote matters."

In Lincoln County - a GOP stronghold where Donald Trump got more than 68% of the vote in 2020 and where 29% of its residents are black - the all-Republican county commission now appoints three out of five election board members. Officials say closing six out of seven polling stations will eliminate the need to send equipment and staff around the county. It will also help milk bullet cramped and outdated polling stations that do not allow social distancing, county officials say.

All voting would take place in a central location in Lincolnton, the county seat, according to the consolidation plan to be considered by the Electoral Commission.

But in a society with little reliable public transportation, "the poor and marginalized people will not be able to vote because on the bottom line they will not be able to get to the ballot box," said Pastor Christopher Johnson, leader of Greater Augusta's Interfaith Coalition - one of the groups fighting for change.

"We should make voting more accessible," said Pastor Denise Freeman, a Lincoln County activist. "It seems they only want a select group of people to be able to vote."

Freeman - who has gone door to door urging voters to sign petitions to stop the closures - said some voters would have to travel more than 20 miles to cast their vote if consolidation plans continue.

Lincoln County Commission President Walker Norman, a Republican, defended both the changes to the Electoral Commission and the voting closures, saying it would help move voters and voting equipment to a central, modern facility.

The future of the GOP is at stake in this Georgia match

"This has nothing to do with suppressing anyone's voice," he said.

"We have some small, old polling booths in concrete blocks that have been used for 40 years with no disabled facilities at all," Norman told CNN in a recent telephone interview. "No real heat at all, no air conditioning."

And he mocked the idea that people would have trouble casting their ballots, saying "99.9 percent of the public today have cars" and can get to the central polling station.

Voters can also apply for absentee ballots to vote by mail, he said.

The county's election director, Lilvender Bolton, told CNN this week that officials are ready to arrange transportation to the polling station for voters without transportation.

Georgia state Sen. Lee Anderson, the Republican who drafted the bill for the abolition and reconstitution of the Lincoln County Electoral Commission, did not respond to CNN's requests for comment.

Relocations to Georgia to close polling stations - or make other changes to electoral procedures - once required prior federal approval under the 1965 Voting Rights Act to ensure they did not harm blacks and minority voters.

However, a Supreme Court ruling in 2013 struck at the heart of the law, however, freeing Georgia and eight other states - along with a number of counties and cities in other parts of the country with a history of racial discrimination - from federal control.

But Democratic efforts to pass an updated version of the Voting Rights Act are lame in the U.S. Senate. Republicans have blocked consideration of any federal voting law. And the continued reluctance of two Democrats, Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin, against changing Senate rules to allow an equal party vote on the measure, has likely judged their chances.

Georgia is at the center

The actions to abolish smaller county councils come as the electoral process in the state's most populous county faces scrutiny.

Fulton County, a Democratic stronghold that encompasses large parts of Atlanta, is the target of a study of its practices commissioned by the state Electoral Commission. And if Fulton officials reject the review, the GOP-controlled state board may move to replace the county's election management under the provisions of a comprehensive election law passed by Republicans in Georgia last year.

Helen Butler, who oversees the Georgia Coalition for the People's Agenda, is a Democrat who was removed from the Morgan County Electoral Board in one of the county shakes last year. She worries that the new laws in Georgia could form the basis of election undermining.
The fighter in Fulton County is resigning

"If you have a party that controls who gets nominated to the election boards, who has to certify results, and if votes are counted, then if there is someone with an ideology who says 'We do not like the result' (by a choice), they have a better opportunity to do something about it, "she said.

The movements are happening as Georgia has become one of the most important states on the political map this year.

A record turnout in Peach State in the 2020 election helped bring President Joe Biden into the White House and gave his party control of the U.S. Senate after the Georgians elected two Democrats, Sens. Jon Ossoff and Raphael Warnock.

Warnock, elected by voters in a special election, is on the ballot again this year in a high-profile race that could set him up against Trump's election to the Republican nomination, former football star Herschel Walker.

Two other Trump-approved candidates are running in primary elections to try to oust Republican Gov. Brian Kemp and Republican Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger. Trump has blamed Kemp and Rafffensperger for his loss of nearly 12,000 votes in the state. Raffensperger famously rejected Trump's plea to "find" the votes to overturn Biden's victory.

Meanwhile, Democrat Stacey Abrams, who lost to Kemp in 2018, is running for governor again.

Georgia's Republicans are planning a new round of voting proposals

A comprehensive election proposal passed last year in Georgia removed Raffensperger as a voting member of the state's election board. Another Republican proposal this year could further equate election officials by allowing the Georgia Bureau of Investigation to open investigations into election-related complaints.

For its part, Raffensperger is pushing for a constitutional amendment to prevent non-citizens from voting in state elections - even though they are already barred from doing so under existing state law.

Another prominent Republican in the state, Senate President Pro Tempore Butch Miller, who is running for lieutenant governor, has proposed banning the use of ballots.

Georgia GOP lawmakers last year limited the number and location of ballot papers after they were widely used in the 2020 election to prevent the spread of coronavirus. As a result, election officials can offer one ballot paper per. 100,000 registered voters.

(A recent analysis by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution showed that their use has declined - with about half as many absentee voters returning their ballots in drop boxes in the Atlanta area last year compared to the 2020 general election.)

Miller has said the boxes are seen as a "weak link" in protecting choices against fraud and eliminating their use will "help rebuild the trust that has been lost."

All of the individual changes to electoral procedures in states like Georgia could pose major barriers to voting this year, said Sean Morales-Doyle, acting director of suffrage and electoral program at the liberal-oriented Brennan Center for Justice at New York University. law school.

"In many places where we see restrictions, we see restrictions on top of restrictions," he said. "When you keep putting burdens on top of burdens, you'll make it harder to vote."

CNN's Dianne Gallagher contributed to this story.

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