Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The downfall of Governor Robert Bentley reveals that thwarting voting rights is just part of the state’s accepted electoral landscape.
When Alabama announced it was closing 31 DMV offices in September 2015, at least one observer in the state suspected that it wasn’t about saving money. “There’s something bigger happening here,” wrote AL.com columnist Kyle Whitmire at the time.
Now we know the truth: It was political, and it was racist.
We know this thanks to the state House Judiciary Committee’s recently released investigative report on the impeachment of Governor Robert Bentley, who resigned Monday. That report is mostly about Bentley’s abuse of campaign and taxpayer funds, and his alleged extramarital affair with former communications director Rebekah Mason. But it also uncovered why Bentley’s administration wanted to close so many DMV offices—most of them in rural, African-American districts. Turns out, the idea was Mason’s.
According to the report, Mason had effectively curried so much favor and influence from her employer that by 2015 she was unofficially commandeering the state’s budget process. It was in this capacity that she met with the director of the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), Spencer Collier, and ordered him to close the driver’s license offices. Reads the report:
Collier reported that Mason proposed closing multiple driver’s license offices throughout the State and asked ALEA to put together a plan. It was Collier’s understanding that Mason intended the plan to be rolled out in a way that had limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies. Collier claims he reported this to the Attorney General’s office because he was concerned about a Voting Rights Act violation.
Collier ultimately assented to the closure plan, but through the use of an objective metric based on processed transactions per year to determine which offices to close. Collier estimated the ultimate savings to have been just $200,000, which is consistent with media reports. We were told that Governor Bentley approved this approach except that he wanted the office in Senator Gerald Dial’s district to be removed from the closure list.
It was a decision made during a time when Alabama was prepared to start new voting policies requiring people to show certain forms of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. The NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund (LDF) sued the state over the new voting policy, arguing that such laws make it tougher for people of color to vote, and that it encumbers over 100,000 Alabama voters—mostly black and Latino—who don’t have the ID required to vote. NAACP LDF has says that closing DMV offices located in largely black communities would make it even more difficult for them to vote.
That lawsuit is still pending, and an investigation into the DMV closings by the U.S. Department of Transportation last December forced the state to re-open some of the offices. Bentley elected to resign this week rather than follow through with impeachment proceedings. And yet all is not resolved for the African-American voters of Alabama. Those DMV offices were closed or stuck in limbo for two major elections—the presidential primary and general election, potentially impacting thousands of voters’ abilities to cast ballots.
And while the Mason discovery suggests that the intention behind those closings was political, the fact that most of the districts affected were primarily African-American makes it racial. Even after the Bentley administration was confronted with evidence that the closings disproportionately affected black residents, Bentley still refused to reconsider his plan. He, in fact, recently pocket-vetoed a bill that would’ve increased DMV resources for these black, rural districts, places with very little public transportation where people often have to drive dozens of miles to access ID services.
There is a culture of racial disenfranchisement in Alabama that can no longer be ignored. We can’t look at this year-plus long suspension of DMV services in black districts in isolation and say that it has nothing to do with racism or voting rights, as Bentley once claimed. One has to look at the DMV closings in context:
- About a dozen of the state districts created by the Republican-controlled legislature after the 2010 Census were found to be illegal racial gerrymanders. A three-judge federal panel ruled in January that Republicans packed African Americans into too few districts to reduce black voters’ influence on other district races.
- The Bentley administration tried to have the NAACP LDF’s lawsuit against the voter ID law dismissed, but a federal judge denied the state’s motion on April 6, stating that the plaintiffs “have plausibly pled circumstantial evidence” that the state intentionally set out to discriminate against black voters by passing the law.
- A similar voter ID law passed in Texas was also ruled invalid by a federal court this week, which found that state legislators there intentionally sought to make it harder for black and Latino voters to cast ballots.
- Alabama boasts an almost unparalleled history of racial discrimination at the polls against African Americans.
- The 2013 U.S. Supreme Court dismantling of an essential provision of the Voting Rights Act is the outcome of a court battle begun in Alabama’s Shelby County, where the city of Calera was fighting to get rid of a black voting district.
- Former Alabama attorney general Jeff Sessions has a long history of hostility toward civil rights, voting rights, and other federal laws created to protect people of color when states decide they want to flirt with Jim Crow. The fact that Sessions is now the Attorney General of the U.S. means he gets to bring all of that hostility into federal policy now.
This is what AL.com’s Whitmire means by the “Alabamification of America.” Drew Pendergrass, writing about this for a recent issue of the Harvard Political Review, said:
Alabama’s constitution is amended frequently, making it the longest in the world, but the reason for its length points to the most dangerous legacy of Alabama history: over-centralization. The writers of the 1901 Alabama constitution did not want poor whites or black voters to control their own counties or lives, so they required even the most minor changes to local law—such as salary increases for local officials—to be passed as an amendment to the constitution. To this day, only a few areas in Alabama have been granted home rule, and they still face challenges in Montgomery. When Birmingham tried to raise the minimum wage, they were struck down by the state legislature.
Although not quite at the same level as in Alabama, there is plenty of outdated federal law that can be abused to enable the Trump administration to do surprising things. These loopholes in our legal structure are usually avoided (President Obama, for instance, could force Merrick Garland past the Senate and into the Supreme Court with some legal justification) as they would lead to uproar and judicial challenges. A leader unconcerned about uproar could make liberal use of these structural failings.
Bentley, too, was unconcerned about uproar. He ignored the critics of his DMV closings, and still declared as little as a week ago that he would not resign, despite a rising tide of corruption revelations. As Pendergrass notes, the governor is joining two other Alabama officials who were removed from office recently, Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard and Chief Justice Roy Moore of the Alabama Supreme Court, both “emboldened by a culture of corruption and overcentralization.” That kind of power-hoarding has its own special disenfranchising effect on people of color. When the lawsuit over the state’s voter ID law goes to trial this December, it has to be viewed within that culture of disenfranchisement.