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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)