Column: Voter rights in Alabama in serious trouble

In 2014, the state passed a law requiring voters in Alabama to present photo identification in order to vote. This past month, the state announced its decision to close driver’s license offices in 31 counties, including all counties where African Americans make up more than 75 percent of registered voters. (Denise Cross Photography/Flickr)

Hillary Clinton was correct when she stated that Alabama is “living through a blast from the Jim Crow past.” While California and Oregon have both authorized automatic voter registration this year, political leaders in Alabama are undoing years of progress.  

In 2014, the state passed a law requiring voters in Alabama to present photo identification in order to vote. This past month, the state announced its decision to close driver’s license offices in 31 counties, including all counties where African Americans make up more than 75 percent of registered voters, as Clinton explained in an Oct. 17 opinion column where she accused the state of discriminatory voting practices.

Clinton isn’t the only critic of Alabama’s latest move. Rep. Terri Sewell, the only Democrat as well as the only African American in the state’s congressional delegation, wrote a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch asking her to investigate the closures.   

Governor Bentley has issued a statement insisting that the closures are a result of budget shortfalls, wasting no opportunity to accuse the Presidential candidate of exploiting the situation for her political gain. His statement does not serve as reassurance for any minority or low income voters who will be disproportionately affected by the voter laws in combination with the closures.  By deflecting onto Clinton’s character, all Bentley is demonstrating is a failure to acknowledge the ways that this decision will disproportionately affect African Americans and their constitutionally protected rights. 

When the Governor asserts that “To claim this decision is based on race is absolutely not true”, he demonstrates a clear misunderstanding of the issue at hand. Opponents of the law and closures have never accused Bentley or any members of the state legislature of being racist, rather they have criticized voting restrictions that will effect certain groups on the basis of race. 

The state’s decisions are perfectly situated within Jim Crow rhetoric. While the requirement of photo identification is a blanket rule, it is one that carries a cost. Similar to the poll taxes of Alabama’s Jim Crow past, this requirement is one that infringes upon the rights of anyone who cannot sustain the cost. Alabama’s poll tax was once set at $1.50 per year, an equivalent of $11.27 today. The cost of a driver’s license in Alabama today, when combined with a modest test fee, is a whopping $41.25. Non driver identification cards cost $36.25. The cost of a license renewal was spiked by 50 percent this past February.

One must consider, of course, the economic capital of African Americans now versus during the Jim Crow era. Perhaps the cost of photo identification is not enough to raise to the level of Clinton’s accusations. When paired with the closures, however, it is clear that Alabama is set on a dangerous path. 

While the photo identification requirement effects all voters in Alabama, the closures do not. In every single county where African Americans constitute the mass majority of registered voters, voters will not only have to offset potential financial challenges of poll taxes masquerading under a different name, but also the logistical challenges of being denied equal access to pay these taxes. Having to travel counties over in order to buy the right kind of identification necessary to exercise a constitutionally protected right is exactly the kind of oppression that the Civil Rights Movement rallied against. 

For these reasons, it simply does not matter whether the decisions were made based off of race. When a state makes the decision to tie a basic constitutional right to photo identification, it increases its responsibility to provide equal access to this identification. Regardless of racial intentions, the racist implications of these closures are far too significant to bear. 

This is a conversation we must have on a national level. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act to remove provisions which required states that had a history of discrimination against minority voters to obtain federal permission before changing voting rules. This would mean that there was no federal oversight when Alabama decided to require every voter to produce photo identification. 

While candidates like Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have committed themselves to fighting for voter rights, candidates on the right see no issue at hand. With Jeb Bush asserting that voting conditions have improved past the point of federal oversight, Marco Rubio not understanding the “big deal” with voter identification laws and Kasich being responsible for ending early voting in Ohio when 77 percent of early voters in the most populated county were African American, it is clear that the shortcomings of the Supreme Court have benefited the political agenda of the Republican party. 

Secretary Clinton posed an important question in her column, “What part of democracy are all these candidates afraid of?” 

I would answer, any part that holds them accountable to marginalized voices.


Haddiyyah Ali is a contributor to The Daily Campus opinion section. She can be reached via email at haddiyyah.ali@uconn.edu.