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Alabama DMV closings draw call for federal voting rights probe

Rep. Terri Sewell has asked the Justice Department to probe the closings, warning that they'll make it much harder for Alabama minorities to get a voter ID.
A sample of an Ala. drivers license is seen in Montgomery, Ala. (Photo by Dave Martin/AP)
A sample of an Ala. drivers license is seen in Montgomery, Ala.

An Alabama congresswoman has formally asked the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the state’s shuttering of driver’s license offices in several heavily black counties, warning that the closures throw up another obstacle to voting. The call for a federal probe comes as opposition to the state’s decision, announced last Wednesday, continues to mount.

“These closures will potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled, and black communities,” wrote Rep. Terri Sewell in a letter sent Monday to Attorney General Loretta Lynch. “To restrict the ability of any citizen to vote is an assault on the rights of all Americans to equally participate in the electoral process.”

Sewell, a Democrat whose district includes Selma, the historical birthplace of the push for African-American voting rights, called for “a full and thorough investigation by DoJ.”

Citing budget constraints, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said last Wednesday that driver’s license examiners would no longer work at 31 offices around the state. As John Archibald, an Alabama newspaper columnist, noted that day, eight of the 10 counties with the highest share of non-white registered voters will see their offices closed. That includes all five of the counties that voted most strongly Democratic in the 2012 presidential election.

Alabama passed a voter ID law in 2011, to go into effect in 2014. The state didn’t seek approval for the law from the Justice Department, known as pre-clearance, as was required at the time under the Voting Rights Act (VRA). In 2012, DoJ blocked Texas’s voter ID law from taking effect, citing its impact on minority voters. But in 2013, the Supreme Court neutered the VRA’s preclearance provision. Hours later, Alabama announced that its law would go into effect in 2014 as scheduled.

report by the liberal Center for American Progress found that the ID law affected 250,000-500,000 Alabamans, disproportionately African-American, in last year's midterm and gubernatorial elections. 

Gerry Hebert, a former top official in the Voting Section of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division with decades of experience in voting rights cases, said the closures are “absolutely” something the department might look into.

“When I was there as deputy chief and acting chief of the Voting Section, and we received complaints and requests like this, especially one that has drawn a lot of attention and raises significant issues affecting a lot of voters, we would assign a team of people (one or two attorneys working under a deputy chief) to begin an investigation,” Hebert said via email.

Dena Iverson, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, confirmed that the department had received Sewell's letter, declining to comment further.

In a letter sent Friday to state officials, including Gov. Robert Bentley, Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, charged that the closings create a "substantial and disproportionate burden on Black people’s ability to participate in the political process in Alabama." Ifill said her organization might challenge Alabama's voting policies under the Voting Rights Act. 

The issue has also found its way into the presidential race. Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton issued a statement Friday warning the driver’s license office closings are “only going to make it harder for people to vote,” and calling them “a blast from the Jim Crow past.” Clinton renewed her call for automatic voter registration and for a strengthened Voting Rights Act.

Rep. G.K. Butterfield, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, said in a statement that the decision "reminds us that 50 years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act, the fight for equal access to the polls still continues today."  

And Susan Watson, the head of the ACLU of Alabama said last week that “people are right to be worried,” about the closings, adding: “It's going to have a huge impact on the ability of people to get a state-issued I.D.”

RELATED: Protecting the right to vote: A conversation with Ari Berman

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has insisted the closings won’t affect people’s ability to get a voter ID. He said Board of Registrars offices, which are still in every county, will be available to issue the special non-drivers voter ID cards that the state created when it passed the law. And he has said the state’s mobile ID-issuing office will have made it to every county in the state by the end of the month.

But the mobile sites have issued just 29 of the special IDs since the start of the year, according to numbers provided by a spokeswoman for the Secretary of State*. And only 1,442 of the IDs have been issued through any means during the same time frame. In response, Merrill has essentially thrown his hands up. “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” he told Talking Points Memo.

Earlier this year, Merrill suggested there are no big problems with voting in Alabama. “I feel good about the kind of progress that we’re making and I don’t hear a hue and cry from our local officials about us not being able to meet the needs of all of our voters throughout the entire state,” he told ThinkProgress. “I say, at some point in time, you’ve got to forgive people.”

A few months later, Sewell was a co-sponsor of legislation that would put Alabama and 12 other states back under a pre-clearance regime. 


*CORRECTION: This story originally said that only four voter IDs have been issued since the start of the year by Alabama's mobile units. In fact, that's the number that have been issued at the state Capitol.