Alabama must follow through on promised voter rights protections
October 13, 2015
The state of Alabama recently closed 31 driver’s license offices following an $11 million budget cut. Alabama representative Terri Sewell is demanding a “full and thorough investigation” into the closures, which she fears will disproportionately affect the voting rights of residents in poor, rural, predominantly African-American communities, just one year after the state began requiring that residents present valid photo identification to vote. Irrespective of the existing debate surrounding the issue on whether the decision to close these offices was racially motivated, the fact remains that many Alabama residents are finding it increasingly inconvenient to exercise their constitutional right to vote. Actions must be taken to ensure that state budget cuts and their consequences, regardless of intent, do not disenfranchise citizens.
Until just a few years ago, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required that certain jurisdictions guilty of voter discrimination in the past seek approval from the U.S. Attorney General or the U.S. District Court for D.C. before implementing any change affecting voting. In 2013 the Supreme Court made the rule unenforceable through their decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Since then, Alabama has followed the lead of more than 30 states in enacting voter identification laws with the stated intent of preventing voter fraud. This law, unchecked by the Voting Rights Act, is given new weight in the face of closures of offices that provide identification used for compliance with it. Representative Sewell has said the state’s decision to “limit access to obtaining a driver’s license — while insisting on a photo ID to vote — is an unconscionable and overt barrier to voting.”
Sewell is not alone in her vocal protests against the closures — Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has denounced the state’s decision as well, calling it a “blast from the Jim Crow past.” Considering that license offices will close in eight of the 10 Alabama counties with the greatest share of non-white voters, the fear of discriminatory consequences is justified.
In response to the outcry, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said that while driver’s licenses are the primary form of identification used by voters, alternate forms of government-issued identification can be obtained at the Board of Registrars in every county and used at the polls. He has promised that a mobile ID van will visit every county in Alabama by the end of this month, and will return to counties that request it. The state must not only be sure to follow through on these promises, they must also find a way to inform the communities losing license offices of their alternative options or risk repercussions that create an unsettling echo of past discrimination.
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A version of this article appeared in the October 13 print edition. Email Elizabeth Moore at [email protected]