The county commission draws precinct boundaries, designates the places in each precinct for voters to vote, designates the number of voting machines at each voting place, and the probate judge assigns groups of electors in alphabetical order to designated boxes or machines.
The county commission divides the county into precincts for the purpose of voting. A precinct must have visible, definable and observable physical boundaries that conform to standards set by the U.S. Bureau of the Census for defining census blocks for their census.
A voter must vote in the polling place of his or her domicile. Every polling place must have a precinct.
The precincts must be named and designated by the county commission numerically or alphabetically in a manner that is uniform statewide as determined by the Association of County Commissions of Alabama and the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reappointment.
When Precinct Boundaries Change. Only the county commission can change precinct boundaries and only under specific situations set by law. The law allows boundary changes for precincts as follows:
State law requires one form of ballot for each polling place. This, in effect, mandates precincts that do not cross boundaries of any other electoral districts. The boundaries of county commission districts, legislative districts, congressional districts and other electoral boundaries must be taken into account to maintain a uniform ballot.
Keeping boundaries within electoral districts makes sense for other reasons. For instance, drawing precincts to cross municipality boundaries would result in different voter lists for municipal and county elections, causing considerable confusion for voters and poll workers.
With this in mind, commissioners must examine their precinct boundaries every time the electoral boundaries in their counties change, such as through local redistricting or annexation.
When Boundaries Do Not Change. Precincts and their polling places must not be changed within three months prior to an election. All changes in polling places must be submitted to the U.S. Justice Department for approval. This includes an emergency occurring within three months before an election, if it becomes necessary to move a polling place, the move must be submitted to the U.S. Justice Department for approval.
How Boundaries Change
The county commission has the authority to change precinct boundaries. State law provides that any precinct drawn must be a “contiguous compact area.” The precinct must follow distinguishable ground features such as highways, roads, streets, rivers or correspond with the county boundary.
Changes in precincts must be reflected on the map the county commission maintains outlining the precinct boundaries. A copy of the changed map, with a description of the most recent precinct boundaries must be sent to the county board of registrars, the probate judge and the reapportionment task force. The map must indicate the date of last revision. The copy sent to the reapportionment task force must be certified and sent within 30 days of adoption of the changes.
Preclearance. The federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, requires that changes in precinct boundaries be approved by the U.S. Justice Department in a process called pre-clearance.
The Justice Department reviews changes to prevent moves that would have the purpose or effect of denying or abridging the right to vote on account of race, color, or membership in a language minority group.
The Justice Department has up to 60 days to object or to request more information on a submission. A county may not know until that time whether or not its changes are acceptable. The commission must work with their county attorneys to submit changes as early as possible before an election.
Because changes to precincts are not final until after preclearance, county commissions must wait until after Justice Department approval before making modifications to the maps sent to the county commission, probate judge, board of registrars and the reapportionment task force. Once the change has been pre-cleared the new boundary lines must be used.
Selecting Polling Places
The county commission selects at least one polling place for each precinct. Names of the polling places must be submitted to the probate judge along with the map outlining precinct boundaries.
Polling places cannot be changed within three months of an election except for emergencies that necessitates changing the polling place. The change must be submitted to the U.S. Justice Department for Preclearance. The courthouse serves as the polling place for the precinct that it is located in unless the county commission determines otherwise.
Polling places designated by the county commission must be the same for all elections involving federal, state, district and county offices, whether primary, general or special elections.
Changes in polling places are subject to preclearance. In addition, county commissions must pick locations that meet accessibility standards under the federal Voting Accessibility for the Elderly and Handicapped Act of 1984.
Precincts and Reapportionment
Registrars play a very limited role in developing voting precincts. The county commission uses the list of qualified electors on file with the probate judge to draw precincts. These lists are developed by the board of registrars, so in many counties the board is actively involved in giving advice on drawing precinct lines. The board must be notified when precinct lines change so it can update its own records.
The board of registrars must cooperate with the Permanent Legislative Committee on Reapportionment to provide information for legislative reapportionment or on adjusting precinct boundaries due to legislative reapportionment.
When changes are made in voting precincts and locations, new voter identification cards must be issued before the next election.