On Friday morning, Alabama and the federal Justice Department reached an agreement to bring the state in compliance with the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA), a law passed in 1993 requiring states to make it easier and more convenient for residents to register to vote. The Justice Department had threatened to sue Alabama earlier this year over “widespread non-compliance” with the law, citing evidence the state was not giving residents who visited the state’s DMVs the opportunity to register, and state offices were not sending in the registrations they did collect to election authorities. The state says they will spend up to a million dollars to fix the problem.
The new agreement, however, does not force the state to reopen the more than two dozen DMVs in majority-black counties that recently shut down due to a state budget crisis. Local lawmakers and national civil rights groups have cited the office closures as a form of voter suppression, since residents now need an official voter ID in order to cast a ballot and a drivers license is the most popular form of allowable identification.
Secretary of State John 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 a handful of voters have obtained an ID this way. In 2014, hundreds of otherwise eligible voters were disenfranchised because they lacked the proper identification under the new law.
After a local and national outcry against the DMV closures, the state offered to keep them open just one day per month. Civil rights groups and low-income residents say this is far from adequate for true accessibility, and have called on the Justice Department to investigate whether residents’ constitutional rights are being violated.
“We urge the state to continue to eliminate unnecessary barriers to voting,” said Richard Cohen, the president of the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement sent to ThinkProgress. “Our democracy works best when every voice is heard. Given the state’s history disenfranchising black voters, Alabama should be a leader in protecting the right to vote.”
A study of voter access released earlier this year ranked Alabama last in the nation in compliance with the NVRA, giving the state an F grade in accessibility and a D- in representation.