CUTHBERT, Ga. — The consultant, a white man, came to the mainly black Randolph County in rural southern Georgia and recommended that it eliminate seven of its nine polling places. He said the move would save the county money. He said the polling places had disability compliance issues.
But many people in the county assumed a more sinister motive, especially with the state in the midst of a hotly contested election for governor. It pits a Democrat who would be Georgia’s first black chief executive against a white Republican who has been called a “master of voter suppression” by his political opponents.
“I think it was an effort to suppress the vote,” Bobby Jenkins, 66, a retired Randolph County school superintendent, said after a meeting on Wednesday where local residents complained that African-Americans in poor rural areas would be left having to drive long distances to vote. “This is one typical strategy in the Republican playbooks.”
The Randolph County plan was rejected Friday morning on a 2-0 vote by the county’s board of elections. The two members, a black woman and a white man, voted hastily and without comment, leaving a press statement that acknowledged the interest from the news media, residents and civil rights groups.
“The interest and concern shown has been overwhelming, and it is an encouraging reminder that protecting the right to vote remains a fundamental American principle,” it said.
But some say it may not be the last flash point over voting access in Georgia.
Mistrust and bad blood permeates what is shaping up to be a historic election for governor. In the years leading up to the showdown between Brian Kemp, the Republican secretary of state, and Stacey Abrams, the Democratic former state House minority leader, Georgia has been caught up in one controversy after another, locally and statewide, over election integrity, voting access and race.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been sending its members to observe meetings of other local election commissions across the state, and to watch for similar proposals that could curtail voter access, according to Andrea Young, the executive director of the group’s Georgia chapter.
“We sort of anticipated a bit of what’s happening in Randolph County, that there might be efforts to close polls ahead of this election,” Ms. Young said.
The two candidates, Mr. Kemp and Ms. Abrams, have squared off over voting rights before. As secretary of state, Mr. Kemp has overseen Georgia’s elections since 2010. He is a fervent fan of President Trump, who has made numerous baseless claims about voter fraud.
For years, Mr. Kemp’s critics in Georgia, including Ms. Abrams, have accused him of supporting policies that adversely affect minority voters and contravene federal law. They also say he has conducted overzealous investigations of voter registration groups, including one founded by Ms. Abrams. The state’s Democratic Party has called on him to resign his current office in order to ensure an impartial election.
Mr. Kemp has insisted that he had nothing to do with the plan to close polling places in Randolph County, and wrote to the county advising it not to go ahead with the plan.
Unfettered access to the polls for minority voters is vital to Ms. Abrams’s election campaign. She has adopted a strategy that relies less on wooing conservative white Democrats in the countryside, as her party has done in the past, and more on a surge of highly motivated liberals and nonwhite voters, in an increasingly diverse state: By 2030, non-Hispanic whites are expected to make up less than half the population.
For decades, the federal government acted as a referee on voting issues in the Deep South under the Voting Rights Act of 1965. But the Supreme Court sharply curtailed federal oversight in a 2013 decision.
Before that ruling, a polling-place consolidation proposal like the one that has rocked Randolph County would almost certainly have been subject to preclearance review by the Justice Department, with the county obliged to show that it would not disproportionately disadvantage minority voters.
Mr. Malone, an independent election consultant, had been hired by the county earlier this year to help it with voting logistics after the county elections superintendent resigned.
In community meetings last week, Mr. Malone said that the seven polling places were not heavily used — just 12 people voted at one of them in a recent election — and that some did not comply with the Americans With Disabilities Act.
But when the word got out about his proposal, it struck many as drastic. The civil liberties union wrote to the county that the plan would make it “disproportionately harder” for black voters to cast a ballot. The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law threatened to sue, arguing that closing the polling places over accessibility made little sense.
“Forcing elderly, disabled, and other persons with mobility issues to travel lengthy distances to vote is out of place with the purported goal of A.D.A. compliance,” its lawyers wrote to the county.
As Friday’s vote neared, it became difficult to find anyone, Democrat or Republican, who supported the proposal. On Wednesday, the county attorney sent a letter terminating the county’s contract with the consultant who recommended the polling-place closings, Mike Malone.
Suspicion also spread that Mr. Kemp was somehow behind the recommendation — a claim he adamantly denies.
A spokeswoman for the secretary of state’s office, Candice Broce, said that an official in her office had recommended Mr. Malone to the county as a qualified election expert, but that he was one of several consultants mentioned.
In public meetings, Mr. Malone has shown a slide saying that a policy of consolidating polling places “has come highly recommended by the secretary of state.” But Ms. Broce said that Mr. Kemp’s office urged the county to abandon Mr. Malone’s plan.
“They need to focus on preparing for a secure, accessible, and fair election in November,” she said. “Our position on this issue is crystal clear.”
Some black Georgia residents say they are primed to be skeptical of Republican motives, given the repeated efforts by Republican officials to limit voting access in the name of efficiency or fraud prevention.
Republican state lawmakers introduced a bill earlier this year to curtail early voting on Sundays, when many black Christian congregations conduct “Souls to the Polls” voting drives. The legislation died after being opposed by the Rev. Raphael Warnock, senior pastor at the Atlanta church where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once preached.
There have been local disputes in counties across the state over polling-place consolidation and other issues. But Mr. Kemp is the public official who has come in for the most criticism from Georgia liberals and voting-rights activists, who say he has been aggressive in trying to suppress minority voting.
In 2014, he was recorded encouraging a Republican group to register like-minded voters, and warning them that Democrats were “working hard” to register “all these minority voters that are out there and others that are sitting on the sidelines.”
Mr. Kemp’s supporters maintain that he is a champion of ballot access, noting that record numbers of votes were cast on his watch in 2016 and that the rejection rate for voter registrations that year were ninth-lowest in the country.
“If he’s the master of voter suppression, he’s doing a terrible job of it,” Ms. Broce said.
Even so, civil rights groups have engaged with Mr. Kemp over a number of policies. They forced him to change voter registration deadlines that contravened federal law, and got him to change registration forms that erroneously told new voters that they had to mail in documents proving their name and address.
Mr. Kemp was also sued over a system that begins a process of purging voters from the rolls if they do not vote for three consecutive years, though in June the Supreme Court upheld a similar system in Ohio.
Civil rights groups are currently criticizing Mr. Kemp over a law that they call “no match, no vote,” in which voter registrations are flagged as “pending” if a name, address or other information does not exactly match what is in the state drivers’ license database or Social Security records, down to the letter. If the voter does not correct the discrepancy, he or she is dropped from the rolls after 26 months.
The Lawyers’ Committee said the process has an “extraordinarily high error rate” and that minority voters are heavily affected.
Mr. Kemp said in a statement last month that the state law was legal and that a similar law in Florida was upheld in federal court. “Not a single voter whose status is pending for failure to verify will get rejected this election cycle,” he said.
He also suggested that complaints about the law were politically motivated. “Nov. 6, 2018, is right around the corner, which means it’s high time for another frivolous lawsuit from liberal activist groups,” he said.
His office has also attracted criticism for vigorous investigations of potential voter fraud that some advocates say is overkill. In 2010, in an incident chronicled by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, his office participated in a sweeping investigation in Brooks County, Ga., where black candidates had just won a majority on the local school board after an organized absentee-ballot drive.
A dozen organizers were indicted on various election-law charges. None were convicted: One died before trial, one was tried and acquitted, and the remaining cases were dropped in 2014.
A two-and-a-half-year investigation of an Asian-American rights group’s voter registration activities by Mr. Kemp’s office ended in 2015 without finding any violations, according to The New Republic. Helen Ho, a lawyer who founded group, said in an interview on Thursday that the whole thing seemed intended to intimidate the group.
In 2014, Mr. Kemp’s office began an investigation into a minority-focused voter registration group that Ms. Abrams founded, the New Georgia Project. The inquiry was prompted by complaints from 16 counties that included suspicions that canvassers may have been acting illegally and submitting falsified documents.
The New Georgia Project responded with a lawsuit accusing state and local elections officials of failing to properly process more than 40,000 voter applications, but a Georgia judge dismissed the case one week before the November 2014 elections.
The investigation ended with the discovery of 53 fraudulent voter applications. Fourteen canvassers were referred to the state attorney general’s office, where they may face fines as part of what the office calls a “civil administrative matter.”
No concrete evidence of ulterior motives has emerged in the Randolph County polling-place controversy. But the Abrams campaign has seized on it as a leading campaign theme just the same. As of Friday morning, a Twitter message about it was pinned at the top of her social media account.
“Efforts to suppress the vote & depress voter turnout are alive & well in Georgia,” it read.