Black lawmakers and the civil rights community are crying foul at Alabama’s decision to close 31 of its driver’s license offices – many concentrated in majority-Black areas – saying the decision further imperils the voting rights of people of color.
“Alabama’s decision to close ID offices reminds us that 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the fight for equal access to the polls still continues today,” said Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Rep. G.K. Butterfield, D-N.C., in a statement. “Having a say in our country’s Democratic process still does not exist for all.”
Alabama was among the states profiled in an AFRO series on a modern wave of voter suppression aimed at communities of color that gained in strength after the June 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby v. Holder, which hobbled a provision of the Voting Rights Act that has long been used to stymie voter discrimination.
In 2011, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley enacted House Bill 19, a voter identification law that included a “voucher” provision, a troubling, old-school tactic used during Jim Crow. Under the stipulation, a voter who lacks the required photo ID can cast their ballot if two election officials – who, in Alabama, tend to be White – offer sworn statements vouching for the individual.
The recent decision by Alabama officials only exacerbates an already challenging path to the polling booth, voting rights advocates say, and mostly for African-American voters. The decision would leave eight out of the 14 mostly rural counties in Alabama’s 7th Congressional District—the only majority minority district in the state, which experiences high poverty rates and has little to no public transportation—without a licensing office.
“The real issue here is about access. Closing these license offices will severely limit access to the most popular form of photo identification used in voting – a state issued driver’s license,” said Alabama Democrat Terri Sewell, who represents the 7th Congressional District in the Congress.
“It is disappointing, and unconscionable that Alabama would heighten its requirements to vote without also increasing the available options to meet these requirements,” added Sewell, who has asked U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate the closures for possible violation of federal anti-voter discrimination laws. “Closing 31 driver’s license offices across the state only heightens the disparities in voting between low-income and higher-income communities, and…will potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled and Black communities. My constituents are the least able, and least likely to have access to transportation – either public or private – and thus travel across county lines for a driver’s license.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund has written to Gov. Bentley, Secretary of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency Spencer Collier and Alabama Secretary of State John C. Merrill asking them to reconsider their decision.
“These planned closures are consistent with Alabama’s long, egregious and ongoing pattern of racial discrimination against Black voters,” wrote LDF President and Director Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill. “Given the importance of these offices as accessible locations where people can obtain the photo ID needed to vote, we urge you to keep these offices open to protect against the foreseeable negative impact of the closures on Black voters’ opportunity to participate equally in the political process in likely violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution.”
In a letter to Congresswoman Sewell, Gov. Bentley blasts what he calls her “impulsive, ill-informed” comments and said the decision to close the satellite license offices was based on budget cuts and had nothing to do with race.
He also lambasted critics such as Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and assured the state was not attempting to curtail anyone’s right to vote.
“We will go to people’s houses to have their picture made if they don’t have a photo ID in the state of Alabama,” Bentley told AL.com. “We’re not ever going to do anything to keep people in the state of Alabama from voting. And for them to jump to a conclusion like that, that is politics at its worst.”