License office closings shameful barrier to voting
Published 11:26 pm Thursday, October 8, 2015
Can anyone seriously believe that the closing of so many driver license offices in so many predominantly black Alabama counties, with all the implications for voting in a state with a harsh voter ID law, would have happened before the Voting Rights Act was gutted two years ago? The preclearance provisions of the law that were removed in the infamous Shelby County v. Holder case would have kept such a move confined to the ever-active minds of those looking to suppress participation in the electoral process.
Now, under the guise of budget cuts, Alabama proposes to make it far more difficult for citizens to obtain driver licenses, which they not only need to lawfully operate a vehicle, but which also are the most commonly used forms of identification for meeting the requirements of the state’s voter ID law. The impact is glaringly disproportionate; every county in which the population of registered voters is 75 percent or more African-American will see the driver license office close.
Therein lies another argument – as if one were needed – for restoring those provisions, appropriately modified to reflect modern-day reality and the demonstrated progress made since the act was passed in 1965.
U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell, who represents the 7th District and most of the Black Belt counties hardest hit by the closures, has called for a Justice Department investigation. It is well justified.
The barrage of criticism from inside and outside Alabama prompted quick claims that alternatives are available for meeting voter ID requirements. It is true that voter ID can be obtained from county boards of registrars, although the boards’ days and hours of operations vary. It is also true that the secretary of state’s office has a mobile ID unit that visits various counties. However, Sewell noted that her office had received a number of complaints about the ready accessibility and inconvenience of these options.
Some have suggested online alternatives, but that presumes the widespread availability of broadband Internet access and personal computers. That’s a huge issue in many of the affected counties. Alabama’s digital divide is greatest in the Black Belt counties, so it’s hard to see that as a realistic option.
Openly intended or not, problems like this are the predictable result of a stubborn refusal by the Legislature to face fiscal facts and take the necessary steps to properly fund the basic functions of state government. Add to that the potential political impact of suppressed voter participation and Alabamians are smothered in a toxic blend that reeks of irresponsibility and chicanery.