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When It Comes to Voter Suppression, Don’t Forget About Alabama

A state with a long and troubling voting rights history deserves scrutiny.

November 5, 2018

Geor­gia and North Dakota have gotten a lot of atten­tion for vote suppres­sion this season. But Alabama, a state with a long and troub­ling voting rights history, deserves scru­tiny of its own. 

Alabama was where African Amer­ican citizens march­ing across the Edmund Pettus Bridge were brutal­ized, provid­ing the final spark for the Voting Rights Act. It’s also the home of Shelby County, which in 2013 brought down the land­mark civil rights law’s core provi­sion in a lawsuit that made it to the Supreme Court.

That provi­sion required Alabama to seek federal approval before insti­tut­ing any voting-related change to make sure it was not discrim­in­at­ory. While the law was in effect, the U.S. Depart­ment of Justice blocked more than 80 proposed voting changes in the state of Alabama.

It should not be surpris­ing then that Alabama contin­ues to be a hotbed of voting restric­tions. Here are six ways that the state has erec­ted voting barri­ers:

Strict voter ID law: Alabama passed a strict voter ID require­ment in 2011, but it did not go into effect until 2014. In 2011, the state was still required under the Voting Rights Act to get federal approval before imple­ment­ing any changes to its voting rules. State offi­cials did not even submit the new ID law for federal review at that time, likely because the Depart­ment of Justice had previ­ously blocked similar require­ments five separ­ate times, find­ing them discrim­in­at­ory. Alabama offi­cials only put the law into effect in 2013, right after the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act provi­sion that was hold­ing it up. 

Under Alabama’s new law, voters need to show one of a limited number of state-issued photo IDs to vote either at the polls or absentee. (The only excep­tion is if two elec­tion offi­cials at the polls posit­ively identify you.) More than 100,000 Alabami­ans do not have IDs accept­able under this law, accord­ing to a lawsuit filed by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

For low-income and rural voters, it is espe­cially diffi­cult to over­come this obstacle. A 2012 Bren­nan Center for Justice report found that close to a quarter of eligible voters both live 10 miles from an ID-issu­ing office and do not own a car. Making matters worse, Alabama invests no public money in trans­port­a­tion and ranks 48th nation­wide in inter­city transit for rural resid­ents. 

The prob­lem intens­i­fied in Octo­ber 2015 when offi­cials announced a plan to close 31 ID-issu­ing offices to save costs. Research by the Bren­nan Center at the time found that the move would have a strong dispar­ate impact on the black community: ID-issu­ing offices would be closed in all six counties in which African Amer­ic­ans compose over 70 percent of the popu­la­tion, while 40 offices would remain open in the 55 Alabama counties in which whites compose over half the popu­la­tion. Facing moun­tain public condem­na­tion and an inter­ven­tion by the U.S. Depart­ment of Trans­port­a­tion, Alabama scrapped the plan.

Docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship: Alabama is one of only four states that has passed a law requir­ing indi­vidu­als to produce docu­ment­ary proof of citizen­ship when regis­ter­ing to vote. (In the rest of the coun­try, a sworn state­ment suffices.) The law is currently not in effect because of an ongo­ing federal lawsuit that has partially blocked its imple­ment­a­tion. But if the state is allowed to proceed with the require­ment, it will burden tens of thou­sands of Alabama voters. In Kansas, which has imple­men­ted a similar require­ment, tens of thou­sands of attemp­ted regis­trants had their applic­a­tions denied, total­ing between 8 and 14 percent of all new regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions, within the first year of its oper­a­tion. (Almost all those applic­ants turned out to be eligible citizens.) Nation­ally, at least 7 percent of the citizen voting-age popu­la­tion, around 13 million people, does not have ready access to citizen­ship docu­ments.

Gerry­man­der­ing: Just 3 years ago, Alabama was found by the U.S. Supreme Court to have engaged in unac­cept­able racial gerry­man­der­ing when draw­ing its state legis­lat­ive maps. Those discrim­in­at­ory maps will not be in effect for this elec­tion, but it took almost the whole decade to change them. The groups who had chal­lenged the maps complained that the state had packed African Amer­ican voters into a small number of districts so as to dilute their voting power. (One way Alabama managed to so effect­ively gerry­mander was through its innov­at­ive use of computer soft­ware to map racial communit­ies to a tee; indeed, the state made history by becom­ing the first state to use the online mapping soft­ware GIS to gerry­mander with extreme preci­sion.) 

Anti­quated voter regis­tra­tion: Accord­ing to the U.S. Census Bureau, Alabama is in the bottom third of states in voter regis­tra­tion rates, with only 69 percent of voting-age citizens registered to vote. Secret­ary of State John Merrill has boas­ted on multiple occa­sions that Alabama has record-break­ing regis­tra­tion rates — even at one point suggest­ing a 99 percent regis­tra­tion rate — but that is not suppor­ted by the facts.

One reason for these low rates is that Alabama has lagged in modern­iz­ing its voter regis­tra­tion system. Unlike many other states, the state lacks auto­matic voter regis­tra­tion or even elec­tronic voter regis­tra­tion at DMV offices, Elec­tion Day regis­tra­tion, or preregis­tra­tion for 16– and 17-year-olds. (Alabama is also one of the shrink­ing number of states that still does not offer early voting, which is extremely popu­lar in neigh­bor­ing states Geor­gia, Tennessee, and Flor­ida.) At the same time, the state has aggress­ively purged voters from its rolls, remov­ing as many as 658,000 voters from regis­tra­tion lists since 2015, accord­ing to the secret­ary of state. 

To be fair, the state has star­ted moving into the digital age. In Febru­ary 2016, Secret­ary of State John Merrill made Alabama the 32nd state to launch online voter regis­tra­tion. In the nine months between the launch and the Novem­ber 2016 elec­tion, the state received 184,230 new voter regis­tra­tion applic­a­tions through the online portal. Alabama also uses the Elec­tronic Regis­tra­tion Inform­a­tion Center (“ERIC”) to send mail­ings to eligible-but-unre­gistered voters, which the secret­ary of state’s office cred­ited with boost­ing regis­tra­tion.

Polling place clos­ures: A 2016 report found that in a sampling of 18 Alabama counties, 12 had closed a combined 66 polling places since the Shelby County ruling. The alarm­ing rate of poll clos­ures often occur without notice or trans­par­ency. 

Polling place clos­ures are often clumped in communit­ies of color. For example, In 2016, the city coun­cil of Daphne, a suburb of Mobile, decided to shrink the number of polling places in the town from five to two. The three polling places slated to be closed had histor­ic­ally been used by the African Amer­ican resid­ents of Daphne, while the sites predom­in­antly used by the city’s white resid­ents remained unaf­fected.

Voting rights for those with former felony convic­tions: In 2017, Governor Kay Ivey signed a law that restored voting rights to many with previ­ous felony convic­tions, affect­ing close to 60,000 Alabami­ans. Despite the grav­ity of the change, Secret­ary of State John Merrill reportedly refused to publi­cize the new policy or inform people who had been re-enfran­chised, telling report­ers, “I’m not going to spend state resources dedic­ated to noti­fy­ing a small percent­age of indi­vidu­als.” Merrill also said incor­rectly that eligib­il­ity to register was depend­ent on paying off all outstand­ing fees and fines, though he later clari­fied. This combin­a­tion of a lack of public educa­tion along­side misin­form­a­tion contrib­uted to the faulty rollout of the re-enfran­chise­ment policy.

Despite these chal­lenges, voters should not be deterred. Advoc­ates, public offi­cials, and campaigns have mobil­ized to protect the vote. If voters encounter prob­lems, they can call 866-OUR-VOTE or go to 866OUR­VOTE.ORG to get help from Elec­tion Protec­tion, a nonpar­tisan voter hotline. If you are an eligible citizen, you have the right to vote!

(Image: Mario Tama/Getty)