Alabama Voter ID Decision Seriously Undermines Poll Access

October 6th 2015

Adeshina Emmanuel

Alabama plans to shutter 31 drivers license offices—a decision allegedly justified by budget constraints. This decision could create another obstacle to voting in impoverished counties that are heavily Black and voted overwhelmingly for Democrats in the 2012 presidential election.

How Alabama's plans could impact voting.

Alabama has a long, fraught (and some say ongoing) history of racial discrimination and policies that either made it harder for Blacks to vote or limited their power in the electorate.

While a majority of the DMV closings are in white counties, in light of Alabama's strict voter ID laws, which have been accused of hurting Black residents' ability to vote, critics say the DMV closures will only make it harder to cast ballots for Black voters in areas that are impoverished, lack reliable transportation and where many residents don't have cars to make it to the next closest location where they can get a photo ID.

Alabama newspaper columnist John Archibald slammed his state's decision in a piece titled "Alabama sends message: We are too broke to care about right and wrong."

"Take a look at the 10 Alabama counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters. That's Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes, Bullock, Perry, Wilcox, Dallas, Hale, and Montgomery, according to the Alabama Secretary of State's office. Alabama, thanks to its budgetary insanity and inanity, just opted to close driver license bureaus in eight of them. All but Dallas and Montgomery will be closed."

Those eight counties include the five counties that gave Democrats the most support in 2012 compared to the rest of the Alabama, which could have implications for the 2016 presidential election. Voting rights is a major platform of Hilary Clinton's presidential campaign. Clinton said in a statement about Alabama's decision: "This is only going to make it harder for people to vote. It's a blast from the Jim Crow past."

Who this hurts.

Governments have to make difficult decisions when money gets tight, but some policy decisions seem to burden the most vulnerable people. In this case, it is communities who have historically suffered from disenfranchisement and a lack of economic and political power due to structural forces.

So what might seem like an indirect consequence of budget constraints devoid of racial motivations could still, in practice, reinforce institutional racism and inequality. In his book "More Than Just Race," renowned sociologist and race scholar William Julius Wilson notes that “economic changes and political decisions may have greater adverse impact on some groups than others simply because the former are more vulnerable as a consequence of their position in the social stratification system.”

Alabama's voter ID law.

In 2014, Alabama began enforcing a photo ID law that limits the acceptable forms of ID voters can use to cast ballots. A report by the Center for American Progress argued that the law disproportionately affected African-American voters in the 2014 gubernatorial and midterm elections.

But the latest voting rights controversy out of Alabama, if you're listening to the state's governor and other officials, has nothing to do with race and is more a matter of economics. They say the state is too broke to continue operating the offices—which also have low usage rates—and that the state will provide alternatives so people get the proper ID to vote.

However, there are doubts about the effectiveness of these alternatives, MSNBC reported:

"Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has insisted the closings won’t affect people’s ability to get a voter ID. He said Board of Registrars offices, which are still in every county, will be available to issue the special non-drivers voter ID cards that the state created when it passed the law. And he has said the state’s mobile ID-issuing office will have made it to every county in the state by the end of the month. But the mobile sites have issued just 29 of the special IDs since the start of the year, according to numbers provided by a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State*. And only 1,442 of the IDs have been issued through any means during the same time frame."

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell wrote a letter to the Justice Department requesting an investigation into the decision, made by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, which she said could "potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled, and Black communities," and violate the Voting Rights Act, which turned 50 this year.