Alabama's Racist DMV Closings Provoke Demand For Federal Voting Rights Investigation

Republicans have long been trying to make it harder for minorities to vote and participate in politics – mostly because they know minorities don’t connect with the GOP’s bigotry and exclusionary policies. One of the dirty tricks conservatives been trying to pull off is messing around with the requirements to vote – and targeting things like driver’s licenses, for example, making it harder for people to fulfill their rights.

In Alabama, a Democratic congresswoman is taking the GOP to task for these crooked practices. Rep. Terri Sewell has sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice requesting “a full and thorough investigation” into Alabama’s closing of driver’s license offices, particularly in counties with a majority of black citizens. Sewell outlines in her request that closing these offices puts black voters at yet another disadvantage and creates an unneccessary – not to mention – unethical – obstacle for voters. Sewell wrote to Attorney General Loretta Lynch:

“These closures will potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled, and black communities. To restrict the ability of any citizen to vote is an assault on the rights of all Americans to equally participate in the electoral process.”

The state’s decision to shut down driver’s license offices was announced last Wednesday. The Alabama Law Enforcement Agency chalked the closures up to budget constraints, and stated that examiners would be absent from 31 offices in the state – which means that 8 out of the 10 counties with the highest percentages of non-white voters will not have driver’s license offices. Interestingly enough, half of these counties had swung strongly Democratic during the 2012 election.

This is not the first time the state of Alabama has targeted black voters. In 2011, the state passed a restrictive voter ID law that would have affected minority voters. The law was to go into effect in 2014, and Alabama didn’t consult the Justice Department for approval (pre-clearance) like it was supposed to under the Voting Rights Act (VRA). But in 2013, the Supreme Court changed that pre-clearance provision, and Alabama took full advantage of it. It only took a few hours before the state announced that its unfair voter ID law would be ready for 2014, just as the state had planned. This law, according to the liberal Center for American Progress, was found to impact 250,000-500,000 of the state’s voters, who were disproportionately black.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill argues that people won’t have any trouble getting a vote ID despite the closings, because Board of Registrars offices in every county will still issue non-drivers voter ID cards, and the state will have a mobile ID-issuing office in every county. However, mobile sites have only issued 29 IDs since the beginning of the year, proving that it’s not an effective – or preferred – option. Merrill has pretty much shrugged off any responsibility to improve this. He told Talking Points Memo, “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink.”

Several months ago, Merrill implied that he felt there was nothing that needed improvement as far as voting in the state. He said, “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. I say, at some point in time, you’ve got to forgive people.”

Gerry Hebert, who once served as a top official in the Voting Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division, disagrees and said this “absolutely” must be investigated and hopefully changed. Hebert explained:

“When I was there as deputy chief and acting chief of the Voting Section, and we received complaints and requests like this, especially one that has drawn a lot of attention and raises significant issues affecting a lot of voters, we would assign a team of people (one or two attorneys working under a deputy chief) to begin an investigation.”

Unfair voting policies like this are also becoming a talking point in the presidential race. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has openly stated that the closings of driver’s license offices are “a blast from the Jim Crow past” and are “only going to make it harder for people to vote.” Clinton suggested a strengthened Voting Rights Act and automatic voter registration as a solution.

Congressional Black Caucus chair Rep. G.K. Butterfield echoed Clinton’s sentiments stating that voting policies like this “reminds us that 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the fight for equal access to the polls still continues today.” Voting rights are the cornerstone of our economy, and we cannot allow the right-wing to take that away from us.

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