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New lawsuit challenges Alabama voter ID law

Alabama's voter ID law is "simply the latest chapter in Alabama's long and brutal history of intentional racial discrimination," a new lawsuit alleges.
JayDanny Cooper urges Alabama residents to vote in the primary along the side of a highway March 13, 2012 in Birmingham, Ala. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty)
JayDanny Cooper urges Alabama residents to vote in the primary along the side of a highway March 13, 2012 in Birmingham, Ala.

Alabama’s voter ID law discriminates against African-Americans and violates the Voting Rights Act, a lawsuit filed Wednesday alleges, calling the law "simply the latest chapter in Alabama's long and brutal history of intentional racial discrimination."

The suit, brought by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, claims that the state "seeks to disfranchise thousands of African-American and Latino voters—all in the name of “curing” a voter fraud problem that does not exist."

The state said last year that an estimated 250,000 registered voters—around 10% of the state’s registered voters—lack a state or federal photo ID, which the law requires to vote. Black and Latino voters are consistently more likely than whites to lack photo ID.

"Voting rights are important to every citizen, and it is imperative that every Alabamian who is eligible to vote have the ability to vote," Gov. Robert Bentley, who is among the state officials named as a defendant, said in a statement. "We have not been served with the complaint and will do a legal review of it once it is officially received by the Governor's Office."

"Empirical data would indicate that the photo ID requirement is in no way a barrier or obstacle to voting,” Secretary of State John Merrill, another defendant, said in a statement.

In September, Alabama, citing budget constraints, announced that it would shutter or reduce the hours of 31 DMV offices, many of which were in counties with high black populations. Civil rights advocates have said the closures will make it even harder for black voters to get an ID, and have called for a federal investigation. Sherrilyn Ifill, the president of the NAACP LDF, said the closures, coming on top of the enforcement of the strict law itself, prompted her group to take action.

RELATED: Alabama DMV closings draw call for federal voting rights probe

“It is appalling that, 60 years after Rosa Parks’ courageous protest in Montgomery and 50 years after voting rights activists marched in Selma, the Alabama Legislature continues to pass laws that are designed to deprive people of color of their basic civil rights,” said Ifill.

Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature passed the ID law in 2011. But it didn’t try to get federal approval for the law, as it was required to do at that time under the Voting Rights Act. As a result, the law didn’t go into effect for two years. In June 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, the Supreme Court invalidated Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, meaning Alabama and other states were no longer required to get federal signoff for their election laws. The next day, the state announced that its ID law would go into effect.

The new lawsuit claims that the ID law violates a different plank of the Voting Rights Act, Section 2, which bars racial discrimination in voting and remains intact.

Other lawsuits brought by voting rights groups and the federal government have challenged voter ID laws in Texas, Wisconsin, and other states. Texas's law was struck down as discriminatory, though the state is continuing its appeals. Wisconsin's survived court challenges and remains in effect.

During the 2011-2012 session, the lawsuit notes, Alabama also passed two other measures that have been deemed racially discriminatory by courts: a redistricting plan that was found to have crammed black voters into a small number of districts so as to reduce their overall power, and a strict anti-immigration law. The complaint alleges that those other measures help demonstrate the existence of clear racial bias in the legislature, which is key to proving a Voting Rights Act violation.

The complaint also puts the ID law in the context of Alabama’s long and shameful history of making it harder for its black residents to vote. In 1893, the state tightened registration rules to allow registration only in May, arranged candidates on the ballot without party identification, and made voters show registration certificates—an early ID requirement. In 1901, as part of a Constitutional Convention, it introduced a poll tax and a literacy test. As a result, the number of registered black voters in the state dropped from 180,000 in 1900 to 3,000 in 1903.

The lawsuit tells the story of a high school student in Franklin County who will turn 18 this month and wants to vote in 2016, but who lacks an ID and does not drive. The closest DMV office is open only once day a month. Another office requires a round trip of more than 40 miles, is inaccessible by public transportation, and is open only during weekday business hours. The student's parents are unable to drive her because they work.

It’s impossible to get a precise measure of the law’s impact on voting in last fall’s midterms, the first major election in which it was in effect. But it appears to have been significant in keeping voters from the polls: Turnout in Alabama declined to just 41% last fall. To be sure, turnout was way down across the country, but in Alabama the drop-off from the last midterms in 2010, when it was at 57.5 percent, was particularly steep.

WATCH: Alabama secretary of state defends DMV closures

More than 600 ballots, most of them absentee ballots, went uncounted because the voter didn’t provide photo ID. The NAACP LDF says it believes thousands of additional would-be voters didn’t show up because of the law.

MSNBC reported last year that Willie Mims, a 93-year-old African-American was turned away from the polls when he went to vote in the Democratic primary because he lacked an ID. Mims ultimately was unable to vote.

The new lawsuit claims that Alabama’s enforcement of the law has had the effect of making it even more discriminatory. For instance, state officials ruled that IDs issued by public housing authorities could not be used to vote. Seventy-one percent of the state’s federal public housing residents are black.

The lawsuit, which was brought on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP, asks not only for the ID law to be blocked, but also for Alabama to be brought back under a regime of federal supervision for its voting laws.