On Sept. 30, Alabama announced plans to shutter nearly half its driver’s license offices, citing budget constraints. The decision came a year after the state implemented a new ID requirement to vote, purportedly to protect against voter fraud. At least half a million Alabamans, or 20 percent of the state’s registered voters, lack a driver’s license or alternative DMV-issued ID. As with the restrictive ID law, civil rights advocates say the closure of 31 DMV offices — disproportionately affecting poor, rural communities where black people make up a large share of the population — narrows access to IDs and, as a result, will disfranchise black voters. State officials insist that their decision was not race based. Irrespective of intent, the move will suppress black votes. The closures target communities that lack easy access to public transportation. Nearly 14 percent of black families do not own a vehicle, while only 4 percent of families are without private transportation. Of the 10 counties with the highest percentages of black residents, only two will have DMV offices. Unsurprisingly, the DMV closures affect 53 percent of the 15 counties that voted for President Barack Obama in 2012 and the five counties that voted most heavily Democratic in that election. Meanwhile, 40 offices will remain open in the 55 counties that are predominantly white.
“I am particularly appalled by this decision, in light of the 50th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery marches and the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965,” Rep. Terri Sewell, the state’s only Democratic and African-American congressional delegate, said in an Oct. 5 statement asking the Department of Justice to investigate. “It’s utterly disappointing that my home state — the very state that launched the movement towards equality — is the same state that has become fertile ground for its demise.”
State officials maintain residents can obtain a required ID for voting, including free cards, at the board of registrars in each of its 67 counties, the Statehouse and a mobile unit. But some residents live far from county seats. Despite claims of easy access, only 5,294 IDs were issued last year and a paltry 1,442 so far this year.
“You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink,” Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said earlier this month, laying the blame at voters’ feet for not obtaining required IDs. The effect is already clear. In the wake of the ID requirement last year, Alabama’s 41 percent voter turnout during the midterm elections was its lowest in nearly three decades.