Alabama falls short on voting rights

Published 11:26 pm Thursday, November 26, 2015

Alabama officials were taken to the woodshed recently when they reached a settlement with the U.S. Department of Justice on implementation of the National Voter Registration Act of 1993.
The law includes a provision called “Motor Voter,” which requires states let anyone applying for or renewing driver’s licenses also register to vote. Alabama leaders have lawlessly ignored that mandate since it passed, but were busted in September, when the DOJ threatened to sue.
As the Montgomery Advertiser’s Brian Lyman reported, Principal Deputy Attorney General Vanita Gupta wrote to Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange that the state had failed to comply with Section 5 of the law by not providing registration applications to those seeking licenses.
Chastened for the perhaps intentional lapse, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and Secretary of State now have to quickly jump through a series of hoops to bring the state into compliance.
Employees of the ALEA will be required to ask driver’s license applicants if they want to register to vote, provide forms and deliver them to local Boards of Registrars promptly.
The memoranda of understanding Alabama signed on to includes other needed deadlines and mandates, such as to implement an electronic voter registration system linked to driver’s license and other kinds of identification.
Given Alabama’s reprehensible history on voting rights, the stern federal requirements are entirely justified.
It’s hard not to think state agencies’ decades-long intransigence in implementing Motor Voter goes beyond mere incompetence into the arena of voter suppression.
Secretary of State John Merrill and ALEA Secretary Spencer Collier should bring the state into compliance with the law rapidly and transparently, with no political tinkering involved.
Voting rights advocates and media groups should watchdog their actions and keep the public informed.
That, however, is just a start to restoring probity to Alabama’s electoral process.
Just as important is a push by congressional Democrats, including sponsor Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, to restore the federal government’s ability under the Voting Rights Act to screen voting regulations in states such as Alabama with a vile record of discrimination against minorities at the polls.
That oversight authority, known as pre-clearance, was gutted as outdated by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2013.
Alabama’s indefensible closing this year of many driver license offices – disproportionately in predominantly black counties – under the guise of budget cuts shows just how flawed the high court’s decision was.
The closures wouldn’t have been allowed had pre-clearance rules remained in place.
Sewell’s bill to restore those crucial election-law protections deserves the support of all who oppose discriminatory voting schemes that undermine democracy.
None of Alabama’s Republican congressional delegates have signed on so far, however, greatly to their shame.

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