It is about an hour and 10 minutes to Tuscaloosa, the nearest big city to this little knot of houses and churches in the Alabama pines. For the hundreds in this poor county who do not have a car or a friend with the spare time, someone can usually be found who is willing to give a ride. For a fee, of course. “You want to get to T-town, it’s at least $50,” said William Bankhead, 56, sitting in front of a boarded-up building that was once Panola’s general store. “We’re a long ways from a place.” As of last week, Tuscaloosa is the nearest location where a person here can get a driver’s license, after the state decided to stop providing services at 31 satellite locations around the state. The fallout from this decision has been widespread: national politicians and civil rights advocates have condemned Alabama for shuttering the locations, many of them in the state’s majority black counties, just a year after requiring that people show photo identification at the polling locations.
State officials, saying the critics are acting on bad information, insist that the closings have no effect on access to photo ID. “They didn’t make it harder to vote,” said John Merrill, the Alabama secretary of state, who on Thursday met with the Rev. Jesse Jackson to discuss the issue. “They just made it harder to drive.”
Here in rural and poor Alabama — where obstetricians are rare, dialysis centers far apart, grocery stores few and decent jobs scarce — this is little consolation. The concerns most often heard here, one of the poorest areas in the country, are not about voting. They are about the more routine consequences: the day-to-day transactions, the morass of court fines, the jail time that awaits if one is caught driving without a license and the necessity of transportation in a place where Alabama’s modest state services seem to be receding year by year.