Last year, Alabama began enforcing a controversial voter ID law that disenfranchised hundreds of otherwise eligible voters who lacked the proper documents. This month, the state plans to close 31 driver’s license offices — most of them in rural, impoverished, majority-black counties — making it even harder for residents to get the most common form of ID used to vote.
Alabama’s top elections official, Republican Secretary of State John Merrill, has dismissed the outcry over this move from civil rights groups, presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, and the Congressional Black Caucus. “The criticism is strictly a liberal attempt from people who are not from here, and don’t understand what’s going on with our people or our budget situation,” he told the website TPM.
But those living in the state who are intimately familiar with its past and present are also rising up in opposition.
“I grew up in Selma; I’m a third-generation Alabamian,” said Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) during a panel on voting rights in D.C. on Tuesday. “My own dad stood in lines for water fountain labeled ‘colored.’ So now it’s frightening that we’re seeing a renewed assault on voting rights, including these DMV closures. It’s unconscionable and we should not just sit back and let this happen.”
Sewell, who grew up amid the voting rights struggles of the 1960s, called on the Justice Department on Monday to investigate the voter suppression these office closures could have. She extended a invitation to Attorney General Loretta Lynch to personally visit Alabama and see the impact firsthand.
During Tuesday’s event, Sewell noted that her own district is losing nearly half of its DMVs, especially in counties with the largest registered African American voting population. Meanwhile, across the state, an estimated 250,000 eligible voters lack the proper ID, according to Alabama officials, and fewer than 7,000 of them have obtained a free state ID since the law went into effect.
Looking at these disparities, Sewell said she thinks the budget crisis is just a “pretext” for a more sinister goal of erecting additional barriers to voting.
“The state of Alabama is balancing its budget on the backs of the people who can least afford it,” she said. “There’s no denying that the impact and effect is a disproportionate burden on low income communities. These are poor rural communities where people don’t have cars. They struggle to get to their jobs let alone to an ID office. But instead of doing things like expanding Medicaid and accepting millions of dollars from the federal government, Alabama lawmakers would rather raise cigarette taxes and close DMV offices. It’s unacceptable.”
Yet Secretary of State Merrill and other Alabama Republicans have insisted that the DMV closures will have no impact on residents’ right to vote — arguing that each county will still have one Board of Registrar’s office and most will get a visit from a mobile unit giving out free voter IDs. Yet these mobile units stop in only one location in each county, and are open for just two hours at a time. Voters without IDs, who cannot drive and may have full-time jobs, could have difficulty accessing this service. In all of 2015 to date, only 29 voters have obtained an ID this way.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” Merrill said. “The fact that people don’t get them, that’s not our fault.”
The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund disagrees. In a letter to the state this week, the civil rights group suggests they may take legal action against Alabama for “creating a substantial and disproportionate burden on black people’s ability to participate in the political process in Alabama.”
The NAACP says Alabama is in “likely violation” of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, one of the only remaining federal voter protections on the books since the Supreme Court gutted the law in 2013.
Sewell is a lead sponsor of the Voting Rights Advancement Act — a bill to restore and update the weakened Voting Rights Act of 1965 and force states like Alabama with a documented record of voter suppression to seek pre-clearance from the Justice Department before they tweak their voting laws. The bill has been stuck in a House subcommittee since July. Earlier this year, Sewell presided over the 50th anniversary of the Selma march that led to the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. She told ThinkProgress at the time that she hoped the event would inspire her colleagues to take legislative action, but she revealed Tuesday that’s she’s been deeply disappointed.
“I’m particularly upset that we all came to my hometown this year for a ‘kumbaya moment,’” she said. “We had 100 members of Congress, Republicans and Democrats, and we all marched across that bridge and patted ourselves on the back and said, ‘We’ve truly overcome.’ Then we came back to Washington and did nothing.”