This past weekend, civil rights advocates gathered in Selma, Alabama, to mark the 51st anniversary of the Bloody Sunday attack on civil rights activists who had taken to the city's Edmund-Pettus Bridge to protest myriad rules that had effectively disenfranchised black voters across the South. The assault on the peaceful demonstrators shocked the nation, and is largely credited with spurring Congress to pass the Voting Rights Act of 1965, a law that strengthened protections for minority voters and required states with troubled histories of restricting polling access to clear all new voting laws with the US Department of Justice.
In the decades following Bloody Sunday, it looked like voter vouchers and other stringent voter ID requirements were slowly becoming a forgotten remnant of life in the less-than-equal South. But in 2011, Republican lawmakers in the Alabama Legislature included a disquieting provision in an already controversial bill: Under the banner of preventing voter fraud, the state followed several others in introducing a voter ID law that would require residents to present certain forms of government-issued identification in order to cast a ballot. On top of this, the bill also stipulated that anyone could vote, regardless of whether he or she had an ID card, so long as two poll workers could vouch for his or her identity—a troubling echo of Jim Crow–era rules in Alabama counties requiring any would-be voter to obtain "vouchers" from two registered (read: white) voters confirming his or her identity.
Perhaps predictably, civil rights groups cried foul, alleging that Republican lawmakers were simply trying to make it more difficult for Democratic-leaning minority voters, who disproportionately lack the requisite identification, from the polls. A report from the Center for American Progress estimated that as many as 500,000 Alabama residents could be negatively impacted by the ID requirement.
Although the bill's Republican supporters said the new measures were simply aimed at stopping voter fraud, critics noted that the type of impersonation-based election crimes that voter ID requirements attempt to prevent are exceedingly rare. Unsatisfied with Alabama's explanation, the Justice Department asked the state for more information to explain why, aside from outright discrimination, it needed to place the new restrictions on voting. In May 2013, Alabama's attorney general responded, calling the federal agency's request an "unnecessary and inappropriate" burden and asserting that the state would provide no further information to ease the feds' apparent concerns.
The following month, Alabama got its way. In June 2013, the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Shelby County v Holder, effectively disabling Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which gave the Justice Department authority to block discriminatory voting laws before they went into affect in nine, mostly Southern states, including Alabama. Freed from federal oversight, Alabama immediately announced that its long-stalled ID law and voucher rule would take effect. Numerous other jurisdictions across the South quickly followed suit, implementing a variety of new restrictions on voting.
For civil rights activists across the South, the Shelby ruling amounted to a historic setback. Without federal "preclearance," new barriers to voting can often only be challenged after they are implemented, making the fight against such laws far more difficult.
"When Section 5 was still around, states could not enact new voting laws without proving to the Department of Justice that they wouldn't make minority voters worse off," said Richard Hasen, a professor of law and political science at University of California, Irvine. "Now this burden is on plaintiffs, and they have a much higher threshold they have to overcome."
The recent proliferation of new restrictions has inflected the celebrations in Selma this week with worries of a resurgent era of voter suppression—concerns that have taken on new urgency ahead of the first presidential election since the landmark Shelby decision. And Alabama provides a striking example of post-Shelby uncertainty among civil rights activists.
In the nearly three years since the Shelby decision, the state's implementation of the voter ID law has been something of a saga. In September 2015, for instance, following a budget cut by the Alabama Legislature, the state ordered the closure of 31 of the Department of Motor Vehicle's part-time satellite offices, many of which served poor, rural regions. Given that unequal access to state-issued identification cards was their primary argument against the state's voter ID law, civil rights groups were outraged by the closures, and claimed the move would further limit minority voters' access to Alabama's polls.
"[T]hese offices provide the most accessible way for Alabama's Black residents to secure the most common form of photo identification," the NAACP wrote in an October letter to Alabama Governor Robert Bentley. The letter went on to assert that the closures would create "a substantial and disproportionate burden on Black people's ability to participate in the political process in Alabama."
In response, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill—backed by writers at the National Review—argued that the state's DMV offices were not the sole source of government-issued ID cards, and that county registrars could issue the required state IDs. Merrill also emphasized that the state had a "mobile unit" for issuing IDs to people who might lack access to an existing issuer. Amid the uproar over the shuttered DMVs, Merrill promised that by the end of October 2015, the mobile unit would issue IDs to residents in each of Alabama's 67 counties. And the state made good on this promise.
Since then, though, the mobile unit has become strikingly stationary, according to Deuel Ross, an attorney at the NAACP's Legal Defense and Education Fund. In a recent interview, Ross said that, according to his records, the unit hasn't moved yet this year, even in the weeks and months ahead of Alabama's hotly contested primary election on Super Tuesday.
"Every time we'd talk about the closures, they'd say: 'You don't have to worry because we're sending the mobile unit all over the state,'" Ross said, adding that even though many residents seek IDs ahead of elections, "this year, they didn't bother to send the mobile units out before the March primary."
In an email to VICE last week, a spokesperson for Alabama's secretary of state's office confirmed that mobile units had not been sent out since December, citing the agency's limited resources during an election year.
"We only have [five] people who currently serve in our elections division," Kayla Farnon, an agency spokesperson wrote. "We cannot send [two] people out every day to drives leading up to our largest primary the state has seen." Farnon claimed that, nonetheless, the state had its highest-ever turnout for its Super Tuesday primary votes this year.
Apparently unsatisfied with the mobile unit's ability to fix the problem, the Obama administration announced in December that it was launching an investigation into Alabama's DMV closures. "Today, the US Department of Transportation is making it clear that Title VI is not optional," US Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said in a statement, referring to a provision in the 1964 Civil Rights Act that governs equal access to programs receiving federal assistance. That same month, the NAACP also filed a lengthy civil rights suit against the state of Alabama for its voter ID law.
Scott Douglas, the executive director of the Greater Birmingham Ministries, a community organization that signed onto the lawsuit, says the voucher system included in Alabama's new voter ID law has caused problems around the state, especially in gentrifying neighborhoods where new residents sign up to administer polling places. In an interview, Douglas cited two cases in which "elderly people who had been voting for decades could not be vouched for by the new people who had moved to the neighborhood and were working the polls."
The voucher requirement fits into a galaxy of issues relating to the passage and implementation of the law that Douglas says has increased his sense of frustration with his state's government. "Is it corruption or is it incompetence?" he asked. "I see both."
A major problem with the law's implementation, Douglas added, has been the state government's failure to educate Alabama residents about the new law. "People are still not clear on this law," he said. "Confusion downsizes the vote, it downsizes participation." The burden for educating the public about voting procedures, he added, has now fallen squarely on the shoulders of his organization and the handful of others like it scattered around the state.
"We are doing all we can," Douglas said, "but we're a very small finger in a big hole in the dike."
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