Demonstrators gathered on the steps of the Alabama state capitol in Montgomery this week pressure Gov. Robert Bentley (R) to reverse his decision to cut the hours of more than a dozen state DMVs — a move they say will make it much harder for many residents to get a voter ID.
“This is not about budgets. This is about voting right,” state Sen. Hank Sanders (D-Selma) told ThinkProgress. “The governor, with a stroke of a pen, can change this. Our efforts are to enlighten him and pressure him.”
Bentley had originally ordered 31 DMV offices — concentrated in rural, majority-African American counties — to be shut down entirely. After pressure from local officials and national civil rights groups, the state announced they would keep the offices open, but only one day per month.
“They are not willing to make people drive to the next county to get a bottle of liquor, but they want to make them drive to the next county to get an ID. Is liquor more important than the right to vote?” asked Sanders. “This is why we are still protesting. We know they can very easily open up the DMVs. In fact, when they increased drivers license fees by 54 percent this year, that money was supposed to be used to keep they offices open.”
Alabama officials have defended the DMV closures, arguing to ThinkProgress this summer that residents can still get a voter ID at the Board of Registrar’s office in their county, or meet up with the mobile unit that travels around the state processing voter IDs. But they also admitted the registrar offices have no evening or weekend hours, which presents difficulties for those with full-time jobs or multiple jobs. As for the mobile unit, it generally visits just one county per day and is open for just two hours at a time.
Alabama implemented its voter ID law shortly after the Supreme Court struck down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, which determined which states had to get preapproval from the Justice Department every time it changed its voting laws because of its long history of racially-based and often violent voter suppression. The ACLU and other voting rights groups argue the law disproportionately burdens the elderly, people of color, students, and the poor — who may have difficulty finding transportation to an office during the narrow hours they are open, and who may lack a birth certificate or other document needed to get the free identification card.
State Sen. Sanders says he is “disappointed” to see Alabama losing ground on voting rights after so many decades of progress.
“I participated in the tail end of the Selma to Montgomery march,” he told ThinkProgress. “I was there when Dr. King asked, ‘How long?’ and the crowd responded, ‘Not long!’ I truly thought we wouldn’t have to wait too long for the right to vote. When the Voting Rights Act was passed in 1965, I thought, ‘It really won’t be long now.’ But here we are 50 years later still fighting for the right to vote. I’m certainly disappointed but I’m going to let that immobilize me. I’m going to keep fighting and I’m asking others to keep fighting too.”