Just weeks ahead of the 50th anniversary of the violent clashes in Selma that led to passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965, lawmakers introduced a bill to restore that law’s power to protect voters against discrimination. Alabama’s newly sworn in Secretary of State John Merrill told ThinkProgress at a DC conference on Wednesday that he believes the new law should not cover his state, saying it’s time to “forgive people” for past voter suppression and “move on.”
Civil rights groups and some lawmakers are already sharing concerns that Alabama — whose racially motivated redistricting case led to the gutting of the law in the first place — is not covered by the new version of the Voting Rights Act. But Merrill said he agrees with the authors of the bill that his state should not fall under the updated coverage formula.
“I feel good about the kind of progress that we’re making and I don’t hear a hue and cry from our local officials about us not being able to meet the needs of all of our voters throughout the entire state,” he said. “I say, at some point in time, you’ve got to forgive people. If they’ve shown they are responsible and doing things the right way and have an extended period of success, then to me that ought to indicate that the strength is there, the desire is there, and you’ve got to move on.”
When the Supreme Court struck down a key piece of the law in the summer of 2013, the federal government lost the ability to stop discriminatory changes to voting laws before they took effect in states and counties with a legacy of racism and voter suppression. Almost immediately after the Supreme Court’s ruling, Alabama pushed through the held-up redistricting as well as a voter ID law estimated to disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of voters.
Others say Alabama has not, as Merrill claims, demonstrated a “period of success” in protecting voting rights.
“Alabama has a storied history of voter suppression. Although progress has been made, it is largely due to the protections granted by the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965,” said Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL). “We have witnessed a steady erosion of voter protections in the wake of Shelby County v. Holder that prove federal oversight is still necessary.” Sewell added that as recently as last January, courts found evidence of intentional discrimination against minority voters in Evergreen, Alabama. There, black voters were systematically photographed going to the polls as a means of voter intimidation, African Americans were improperly purged from the voter rolls using utility records, and the city’s voting map was redrawn to dilute black city council representation in the majority-black city.
Under the new Voting Rights Act — identical to one that died in Congress last year — only voting rights violations committed over the past 15 years count toward deciding which areas get extra pre-clearance protections, and only four states would make the cut: Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and Mississippi.
Secretary Merrill told ThinkProgress that his job would be easier if he “didn’t have to worry about getting the pre-clearance qualification taken care of,” especially as he pursues his new goal of requiring a voter ID for anyone who needs to vote absentee. Many individual counties in Alabama already have this strict requirement, but others do not. In those that don’t, Merrill has noticed a high percentage of residents choosing to vote absentee, and claimed this could be a sign of fraudulent “manipulation” of the election.
“When you have 350 total votes cast and you have 160-plus absentee votes cast for one candidate in that race, that’s probably a problem,” he said. “We want to prevent that by requiring that the government-issued photo ID copy accompany the application [for an absentee ballot].”
When ThinkProgress asked Merrill which counties are on his radar, he declined to specify, but added without prompting: “It’s not predominantly white or predominantly black. It varies.”
In other states, such requirements have been found to disproportionately impact voters of color, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities.
Sewell, whose district includes Selma, hopes to push for the new Voting Rights Act to include Alabama during the amendments process. But the bill may never make it to that stage. Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-VA), who controls the Judiciary Committee that must mark up and pass the bill before it goes to the House floor for debate, told reporters last month that he has no plans to bring it up and believes a new Voting Rights Act isn’t “necessary.”