New attacks on voting rights in Alabama

Alabama has developed new ways to prevent African Americans from voting. In the past, it was done through the imposition of poll taxes and so-called “literacy” tests backed up by threats of being fired, beaten or killed.

Now Alabama has developed new, slicker methods of suppression.

In 2011, the Alabama state legislature passed a law requiring potential voters to present state-issued identification cards at the polls before being allowed to cast their ballots. It was understood that a driver’s license is the most common type of valid ID.

In 2012, the legislature redistricted the state to create more majority white, majority Republican districts by pushing black voters into fewer voting jurisdictions.

Now Alabama has closed its Department of Motor Vehicle offices that serve jurisdictions in which three quarters of the voters are black.

The Republican governor, Robert Bentley, has said that closing the DMV sites is not a racist move, but is necessary because of budget cuts.

“As far as voting rights,” Bentley told local Alabama reporters, “this [closings] has nothing to do with that.” He blamed Hillary Clinton for making a big deal out of the closings in campaign speeches. She has called the closings “a blast from the Jim Crow past.”

Nevertheless, largely due to the new ID requirement, voting throughout Alabama is already down by 41 percent in state and local elections.

What’s more, several observers have said that the driver’s license office closings in Alabama are part of a nationwide effort by right wingers to disenfranchise black voters who would probably vote for the Democratic presidential nominee in the elections next year.

If the Alabama legislature and governor thought that their anti-voting rights measures would go unchallenged, they were very wrong.

The state legislative black caucus challenged the redistricting in court. A lower court ruled that the redistricting was okay, but the Supreme Court has decided that the state must take a second look. In the majority opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that “that Alabama expressly adopted and applied a policy of prioritizing mechanical racial targets above all other districting criteria … evidence that race motivated the drawing of particular lines in multiple districts in the State.”

Until the state’s “second look” is completed, the redistricting stands.

Meanwhile, U.S. Representative Terri Sewell, D.-Ala, has asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the DMV site closings.

Sewell said, “On September 30th, my Black Belt constituents were dealt yet another devastating blow when it was announced by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency that it would close 31 driver’s license offices.

“The decision left eight out of the 14 counties in my district without a DMV office that will issue driver’s licenses. Many of the residents affected by this decision will have to travel miles outside of their communities to take a driver’s test and obtain state-issued identification. This fact means that many of my constituents who have limited modes of transportation will be denied an equal opportunity to obtain a means to vote.”

Sewell also said that the attack on voting rights in her district is proof that passage of the Voting Rights Advancement Act (VRRA) is desperately needed.

In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voter Rights Act of 1965 by, among other things, ruling that jurisdictions with histories of voter suppression no longer have to submit for federal approval any changes made to voting procedures.

If the Supreme Court had not gutted the Voting Rights Act, or if the VRRA was now law, states like Alabama would not be allowed to use newly developed methods for suppressing voter rights.

In a late development today, Governor Bentley said he is “considering” reopening the closed driver’s license offices.

We’ll see.

Photo:  A sample of an Alabama driver’s license.   |  Dave Martin/AP


Larry Rubin
Larry Rubin

Larry Rubin has been a union organizer, a speechwriter and an editor of union publications. He was a civil rights organizer in the Deep South and is often invited to speak on applying Movement lessons to today's challenges. He has produced several folk music shows.