In the wake of a new law requiring Alabama voters present photo identification to cast their ballots, the state announced this week it will close 31 satellite DMV offices, 8 of which serve the highest percentage of minority registered voters. Now, Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell is calling on the Justice Department to investigate the legality of these DMV closings which, blamed on statewide budget cuts, have taken place in mostly rural, poor counties with a majority of black voters.
In 2014, following the Supreme Court’s decision to strike down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act which required states with a history of minority voter suppression receive approval from the Justice department before imposing new voter restrictions, Alabama revised their voter laws to include a photo identification provision. That year, during the midterm elections, Alabama saw its lowest voter turnout since 1986 at just 41 percent. Today, it is estimated 250,000 Alabamians lack the proper identification required to vote.
Critics argue the DMV closures will compound the problems raised by the voter ID law, making it nearly impossible for working Alabamians to obtain a photo ID and disenfranchising tens of thousands of eligible voters including students, the elderly, the poor and people of color. “We have zero days of early voting. You aren’t allowed to vote absentee unless you’re out of the country or working more than 10 hours on Election Day,” said Susan Watson, executive director of the Alabama American Civil Liberties Union. “It’s already hard to get an ID if you are in a rural place and don’t have a DMV close to you. But if they shut these offices down, I’m wondering what people are supposed to do.”
But Republican Secretary of State of Alabama John Merrill insists the closures will have little to no effect on voters seeking proper identification, arguing each county has access to a Board of Registrar’s office as well as a mobile unit that circles the state distributing free voter IDs. These services, however, have a very limited reach. Fewer than 7,000 Alabamians have been able to procure the state’s free IDs and to date, fewer than 30 voters have received IDs via the mobile unit as it only serves one location in each county and for only two hours at a time.
On Monday, Congresswoman Terri Sewell, a third-generation Alabamian from historic Selma and a sponsor of the Voting Rights Amendment Act, called on the Justice Department to investigate the state’s activities. In addition, Sewell invited Attorney General Loretta Lynch to visit Alabama to observe the impact on voters firsthand, including in her own district which is losing nearly half of their DMVs.
“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 Sewell. “These are poor rural communities where people don’t have cars. They struggle to get 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 closes DMV. It’s unacceptable.”
Media Resources: CNN 7/25/15; Alabama News 12/5/14; Think Progress 8/26/15; 10/6/15;