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Voting machines are rolled out to be loaded up into box trucks at the BR warehouse and transferred to the precincts Monday Nov. 5, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

WASHINGTON — Louisiana voters will have 126 fewer places to cast their ballots this year than they did in 2012, according to a new study of polling place closures since the paring back of the U.S. Department of Justice's once-broad oversight of elections changes in the South.

Since a 2013 U.S. Supreme Court ruling, Louisiana and other states that had previously faced stricter scrutiny under the 1965 Voting Rights Act no longer have to seek the DOJ's approval, or preclearance, for most voting changes.

The shuttering of polling places — at least 1,688 across the country, according to The Leadership Conference Education Fund's review — is among several issues that voting rights advocates have raised as Congress mulls an update to the law called the Voting Rights Advancement Act.

“These polling place closures are happening oftentimes last minute with little or no notice to voters," said Leigh Chapman, director of the voting rights program at The Leadership Conference.

In Louisiana, where two-thirds of parishes have seen polling places eliminated in the past six years, such decisions are often left to parish government. 

"While we prefer continuity in polling locations, our only role in determining polling places is that the parish governing authorities must certify to our office that locations selected by parish governing authorities are (Help America Vote Act) compliant," said Tyler Brey, a spokesman for the Louisiana Secretary of State's Office. HAVA, adopted in 2002, addresses voter access issues, primarily through upgrades in voting equipment.

But during a hearing at the U.S. Capitol on voter access Tuesday, advocates called the study's findings "alarming."

Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, said discrimination cases can be lengthy and, without preclearance, laws can go into effect before they've been fully vetted for unintended, discriminatory consequences.

“Jurisdictions are closing polling places at an alarming speed,” Gupta said. “Of course, there may be valid reasons for polling place closures, but it’s important to recognize these closures are taking place amid a larger constellation of efforts to prevent people of color from voting.”

She said states should be made to defend their decisions before changes are made.

“Closures often mean long lines at polling places, transportation hurdles and mass confusion about where eligible voters may cast their ballots,” she said.

It's unclear when or if the U.S. House Judiciary Committee may act on legislation that calls for the restoration of the preclearance requirement or how it may fare in the GOP-controlled Senate if it makes it that far.

U.S. Rep. Mike Johnson, chairman of the influential Republican Study Committee and the only member of the Louisiana delegation on the Judiciary subcommittee that heard the proposal Tuesday, argued that discrimination isn't the only contributing factor to changes in voting laws and polling place closures.

“Let’s be clear about this: We all agree that discriminatory treatment in voting based on race and sex is abhorrent,” he said. “But too often, complaints of discrimination in voting have nothing to do with discriminatory treatment. Instead rules entirely neutral on their face are sometimes claimed to be discriminatory because they have a disparate impact on one group or another.”

J. Christian Adams, president of the Public Interest Legal Foundation, an Indiana-based nonprofit that advocates on behalf of tighter voting laws, also defended changes in the laws and decried the partisan nature of arguments over the Voting Rights Act.

“It has never been easier to register to vote in America than it is in 2019,” he said. “It has never been easier to vote in America than it is in 2019.”

Earlier this month, about 30,000 people in East Baton Rouge – nearly 17 percent of the parish’s registered voters — were notified that they would have new polling locations for this fall’s statewide and legislative races.

Louisiana's Election Day is Oct. 12, with a Nov. 16 runoff in races where no candidate gets more than 50 percent of the vote in the first round.

Parish officials cited the need to relocate from places that can no longer host ballot boxes, as well as the re-opening of some sites that had been temporarily relocated after historic flooding in 2016.

Chapman said it's not uncommon for polling places to deemed temporarily closed or moved for such circumstances, but officials don’t always follow through with replacing or reopening them.

“We’re seeing that polling places are closed but are never reopened,” Chapman said.

In Jefferson Parish, 23 polling places were eliminated because they did not meet Americans with Disabilities Act standards for accommodations, the report found.

“We’ve seen this trend across the country,” Chapman said. “(Disability rights groups) don’t advocate for closing polling places. … Counties should work with each polling place to make it accessible.”

Chapman said the report isn’t drawing conclusions about motives or intent behind the poll closures but to draw attention to the lack of review, following the removal of DOJ oversight under the Voting Rights Act.

“What’s happening is these polling places are just being closed and the impact study is no longer being done,” she said. “We have no idea what impact it is having.”

Email Elizabeth Crisp at ecrisp@theadvocate.com and follow on Twitter, @elizabethcrisp.