Despite Justice Department Settlement, Alabama Voting Rights Are Still in Crisis

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Analysis Politics

Despite Justice Department Settlement, Alabama Voting Rights Are Still in Crisis

Ally Boguhn

Last Friday, the State of Alabama agreed to a settlement to resolve claims against it of National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) violations, but the fight for voting rights is far from over.

Last Friday, the State of Alabama agreed to a settlement to resolve claims against it of National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) violations, but the fight for voting rights is far from over.

Alabama agreed to settle on claims that the state was in violation of the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) after an investigation conducted by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice found widespread noncompliance with the “motor voter” provision, which requires states to provide federal voting registration chances when residents apply for or renew identification documents at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The NVRA was originally enacted in order to “enhance voting opportunities for every American” by making it “easier for all Americans to register to vote and to maintain their registration,” according to the Department of Justice. 

The state will now work to fully integrate voter registration opportunities into all applications for identity documents, including during the renewal process.

Officials at the Civil Rights Division and U.S. attorneys lauded the settlement as an important step for voting in Alabama. “Voting is the cornerstone of our democracy,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division, in a statement. “We commend the state of Alabama for working quickly and cooperatively with the department to ensure that eligible Alabama citizens can register to vote and update their registration information through motor vehicle agencies, with the convenience they deserve and the ease of access the law requires.”

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“It is essential for every citizen in our democracy to have a full opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote,” said U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama Joyce White Vance in a statement. “The agreement concluded today between the Justice Department and the state of Alabama moves our state forward towards compliance with the ‘motor-voter’ Act, which was enacted in 1993, and will make it easier for citizens to register and maintain their voter registration while applying for and renewing drivers’ licenses.”

But monumental roadblocks to voting rights still exist in Alabama—namely strict voter identification laws, which disproportionately impact marginalized individuals. In 2011, the Republican-led Alabama state legislature passed a law requiring residents to have photo identification in order to cast ballots, including absentee ballots—despite already having a law requiring some form of identification at the polls. 

As previously noted by Imani Gandy on Rewire, these sorts of laws disenfranchise many voters who don’t have photo identification because they don’t regularly need it, don’t drive, or don’t have the money it takes to obtain one.

“And for these people, getting a photo ID solely for the purpose of voting when all they needed before was their voter registration certificate can be very difficult. And it’s especially hard on people of color, people with disabilities, non-English speakers, elderly people, and low-income folks,” wrote Gandy.

Voter identification laws were also created to address a problem that hardly exists: voter fraud. Numerous reports and investigations have turned up no evidence it is actually a widespread problem, instead concluding that cases of voting fraud are extremely rare.

The Brennan Center for Justice notes that studies have found that as many as one in ten eligible voters lack the proper identification documents needed to vote in states with voter ID laws, and often those documents are difficult to obtain. “In the real world, poor voters find shuttered offices, long drives without cars or with spotty or no bus service, and sometimes prohibitive costs” in the way of obtaining IDs, the center explained in a 2012 report on the impact of such laws on voters.

The new law in Alabama, which went into effect for the 2014 election cycle, has already had a major impact on elections. According to the Associated Press, reports from the secretary of state’s office at the time of the law’s implementation found that an overview of voting records in the state revealed that 20 percent of registered voters in Alabama, or 500,000 people, didn’t have a driver’s license or non-driver photo ID card issued by the Department of Public Safety—the most commonly used forms of identification for voting. Only half of these individuals likely had another form of acceptable photo identification to use at the polls, according to those estimates. 

Although the state sent out mobile ID-issuing offices, the efforts were largely unsuccessful, registering slightly more than 5,000 people for a new identification card for voting.

Analysis conducted after the election by the Center for American Progress, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, and the Southern Elections Foundation found that in the state’s June primary “at least 282 ballots” were not counted because of the new law, and “40 percent of those discarded ballots came from counties with majority African-American populations, while election officials in two Alabama counties with overwhelmingly white populations illegally waived the photo ID requirement for absentee voters.”

The general election again saw hundreds of ballots left uncounted due to the state’s photo identification law. In Birmingham’s Jefferson County alone, 119 of 151 provisional absentee ballots were cast aside because they did not include the required identification.

In addition to those whose votes were tossed out due to the photo ID law, the 2014 elections—already more likely to have low voter turnout as a non-presidential year—saw voter participation dip to its lowest point since 1986, with just 41 percent of registered voters making it to the polls. This was possibly a result, in part, of individuals knowing they lacked necessary documents.

Now heading into the 2016 presidential election cycle, Alabama has yet another voting rights crisis on its hands. In October, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced that state would no longer send drivers license examiners to 31 non-state-owned satellite offices due to an $11 million budget cut, making it even harder for individuals to obtain photo IDs. All of the locations scheduled to close were located in counties where over 75 percent of registered voters are Black, according to AL.com.

Speaking about the closures during a panel on voting rights, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) explained that the decision would devastate low-income people in her district and across the state. “The state of Alabama is balancing its budget on the backs of the people who can least afford it. There’s no denying that the impact and effect is a disproportionate burden on low-income communities,” said Sewall. “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.”

In a statement to Rewire, Susan Watson, head of the Alabama ACLU, confirmed that the state’s decision to close these offices will disproportionately harm communities of color. “The closures will have a huge impact because the ten counties that are majority minority have closed their driver’s licenses offices,” said Watson.

After Sewall said she would speak with U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch about the closings, Gov. Robert Bentley preemptively announced that the state would continue to send examiners to the 31 locations, but only on a limited basis. “A statement from the governor’s office said an examiner would spend at least one day each month in each of the counties slated to lose part-time examiners under budget cuts announced by ALEA at the end of last month. The schedule and timetable of the return was not immediately clear,” reported the Montgomery Adviser. 

Alabama may have reached an agreement to settle for its “motor voter” NVRA violations, but access to voting rights in the state is far from fixed.