Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The closing of 31 offices in the voter-ID state has caused quite a stir. But let’s take a closer look at the real effects.
Jesse Jackson fired some loud verbal shots at Alabama in an October 5 op-ed he penned for the Sun-Times. Responding to the news that Alabama was closing out dozens of drivers license service offices around the state, particularly across the Black Belt, he wrote, “This new Jim Crow isn’t subtle.”
Not long after, he was on his way to Alabama to voice his concerns directly to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley’s face.
Jackson and the governor met on October 7, along with Alabama’s Secretary of State John H. Merrill and a group of African-American state legislators. The result of that meeting, according to Merrill, was that, “Upon presenting the following information to them, all in attendance agreed that Alabama does not have a photo ID concern.”
People at the meeting may have agreed that there’s not a voter ID concern, but there are certainly other problems left unresolved by the 31 locations that the state closed for budgetary reasons.
The closings took place in six counties where the black population is greater than 70 percent, and in 11 counties where African Americans make up at least half of the population. Given those facts, Alabama officials should have anticipated getting hammered on the decision to close facilities where they did.
Last year, it became mandatory in Alabama for voters to flash photo identification in order to vote. This despite the fact that there are somewhere between 250,000 and 500,000 people around Alabama who don’t have photo identification, according to the state’s own numbers. African Americans are more likely to not have licenses or state-issued ID—in no small part because a lot of folks in the elderly black population don’t have birth certificates. (Many black women in the South weren’t served by hospitals during the Jim Crow era, so they gave birth at home or at non-medical facilities, their children born off the books.)
Below is a map that the Brennan Center for Justice pulled together showing where the closed license offices are in proximity to black populations:
The Brennan Center reported in 2012 that almost a third of Alabama’s voting-age population lived more than 10 miles away from the nearest license-issuing office that was open more than two days per week.
Those numbers have not budged today—even with the 31 drivers license offices that have closed. That’s because almost all of the offices that were closed down were only open one day a week, none of them on weekends, and many of them for only a half-day. And they weren’t actually “offices.” Rather, they were “supplemental services” from state government “examiners” who were dispatched to satellite locations to primarily administer drivers licenses to new teen drivers.
It is not yet clear how much of a disenfranchising effect the closings will have on African Americans when it comes to voting. Still, voting rights and civil rights advocates have gone apoplectic over the closures, mainly because of the dark clouds of Jim Crow legacies hovering above the state.
Alabama congresswoman Terry Sewell called the closures a “renewed assault on the sacred right to vote.” ACLU Executive Director Susan Watson said, "It's going to have a huge impact on the ability of people to get a state-issued I.D."
The New York Times editorial board wrote on October 8 that the closings “will make it even more difficult for many of the state’s most vulnerable voters to get one of the most common forms of identification” needed to cast votes.
Hillary Clinton went all out, calling the closures a “Jim Crow blast from the past,” which suggests that clearly there is some political capital to be earned from black voters for working voter-id-requirement nerves.
Comedy Central’s Larry Wilmore said of the closings that in Alabama, “DMV” means “deny my vote.”
Alabama officials have been keen to remind the public that there are other options for people to get photo ID. People can obtain free voter ID cards at county registrar offices, which are open in all of Alabama’s counties and for longer hours throughout the week. The state is also providing mobile services, sending crews out to various locations on certain dates and by request to dispense voter identification cards.
But congresswoman Sewell said in her op-ed that these services have been inadequate, and that she received “several complaints about their inaccessibility and inconvenience” during the past election in Alabama. The NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund was even sharper in its critique of those services in a letter from its president Sherrilyn A. Ifill directed toward Alabama’s governor and other state officials.
[M]any of the Black residents affected by the closures in Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes, Bullock, Perry, Wilcox, and Hale counties are rural and live outside the county seat; however, no mobile ID units are presently scheduled to visit these counties*. Indeed, last September, we wrote to the Secretary of State to describe the similar, myriad problems for Black voters related to the limited hours and locations of the registrars’ offices and mobile ID units. Both places are largely inaccessible to the 13.8 percent of Black households in Alabama, as compared to 4 percent of white households, which have no access to a vehicle. …
These problems undoubtedly contribute to the fact that only 5,070 voter ID cards were issued by the Secretary of State and county registrars ahead of the November 2014 elections—utterly failing to bridge the gap for the hundreds of thousands of voters who lack driver’s licenses or non-driver ID cards and falling far short of the Secretary of State’s own modest goal of issuing 12,000 cards.
This sounds a lot like Pennsylvania in 2012, when the state was trying to keep its own voter-ID law alive, hoping to fill the accessibility gaps with similar state-issued voter ID cards. But like Alabama, Pennsylvania kept coming up short of its card-issuing goals, and eventually a state court found the law to be a violation of the state’s constitutional voting-protection rights.
Make no mistake, Alabama has a long history of voting discrimination. The Nation’s Ari Berman reminds us that this is the state that went through great pains to birth the Voting Rights Act because of that fractured history, and that no state (except maybe Texas) has fought harder to abort it. Shelby County, Alabama, did hobble the civil rights law in 2013, by successfully petitioning the U.S. Supreme Court to nullify a key provision of the Voting Rights Act—a provision that might have slowed Alabama down from making these closings had it still been in place. As NAACP LDF pointed out in its letter:
These planned closures are consistent with Alabama’s long, egregious and ongoing pattern of racial discrimination against Black voters. Given the importance of these offices as accessible locations where people can obtain the photo ID needed to vote, we urge you to keep these offices open to protect against the foreseeable negative impact of the closures on Black voters’ opportunity to participate equally in the political process in likely violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (“VRA”) and the U.S. Constitution.
Moreover, the historical background leading up to the racially discriminatory closures of these driver’s license offices lead us to question the intent of Alabama officials. The photo ID law was initially passed in 2011 in the midst of a highly racially-charged legislative session.
For example, the Alabama Legislature that enacted the photo ID law in 2011 included high-ranking Senators who a federal court later found had pursued a deliberate scheme “to maintain and strengthen white control of the political system,” and who demonstrated a “deep-seated racial animus and a desire to suppress [B]lack votes” by manipulating the turnout in the 2010 elections.
Still, the connection between the closed-out license services and opportunities to vote can’t help but feel pretty tenuous. While voting accessibility in black, rural counties is a problem, this was just as problematic when the now-closed, part-time services were open. The bigger loss from these closures is that people in these counties are losing a vital place to get a license to drive.
Not having cars and drivers licenses impedes Black Belt residents’ access to jobs and plenty of other social welfare offices concentrated in county seats. Speaking with State Representative Anthony Daniels about it, he told CityLab that, “It’s more of a quality of life issue than it is a voting rights issue.”
Daniels represents a district where none of the part-time license services were closed. But he grew up in Bullock County, where the services have been cut. In that Bullock and other Black Belt counties like it, there are larger correlations between the lack of driver-license services and access to jobs. Of the 15 counties with the highest unemployment rates, part-time satellite DMV services were phased out were closed in 11 of those, as seen in the chart below:
“My argument is not so much about ballot access, but more about high-school students in those counties getting their licenses,” says Daniels. “My aunt took me out of school on her lunch break to get my license. Well now, what was a 5-minute drive is now approximately an hour or two.”
“At the very least,” said Daniels in a press statement, “we should consider a partnership between the closing DMVs and local high schools. Many high schools have drivers ed programs. The DMVs could have a relationship with these schools, making it easier for young people to get their licenses and for adults to renew them.”
High-school students can’t vote—which means the closed offices will have little effect on their voting rights. But most of the counties where Alabama’s colleges are located still have their DMV offices open. Tuskegee University in Macon County is one exception.
But when I spoke with Jeremy Alphord, Tuskegee’s senior director of communications, he said there was no significant impact from the closings on the students’ voting or driving access because, “most students already have drivers licenses from their home counties.” And a former Tuskegee staff member said that most students live in Auburn anyway, where all of these services are available—as well as jobs.
It’s worth noting that under federal law, DMV offices are required to offer voter registration services. The DMV closings will reduce opportunities for that to happen—though, again, given how rarely those offices were open, it’s hard to know whether those reductions are really significant. The number of transactions in general performed at the closed offices came to less than five percent of all drivers-license transactions (about 2,000)—and that’s for all 31 closed stations combined in 2014.
Absent Alabama’s history of racial discrimination—and absent the voter ID law—these closings would not have made national headlines, nor been accused of being new Jim Crow tactics. Still, if civil rights groups appear to be over-vigilant about this, it’s because Alabama made them that way through its sordid, racist history. If Alabama insists on keeping its voter ID law, then it will have to reconcile that history.
As the Al.com editorial board wrote on October 12: “This is an issue inextricably entwined with the past, one we have brought upon ourselves. Our shameful history can't be erased from any political, financial or cultural picture.”
*Editor’s note: The state has updated its mobile ID unit schedule since Sherrilyn Ifill’s letter was written.