by Deuel Ross, Fried Frank Fellow, NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc.
On Friday, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), on behalf of our allies at Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP, wrote a letter to the state of Alabama about its decision to close 31 of its Department of Public Safety (DPS) driver’s license-issuing offices. The state’s decision shuttered DPS offices in eleven rural counties: Choctaw, Sumter, Hale, Greene, Perry, Wilcox, Lowndes, Butler, Crenshaw, Macon, and Bullock. These eleven counties make up most of Alabama’s “Black Belt”—a region with large concentrations of African Americans, incredibly high poverty rates, and almost no public transportation.
In our letter, LDF noted that there is a strong likelihood that Alabama’s actions violate the protections provided by the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the United States Constitution. But what do driver’s license offices have to do with voting? A lot, actually.
In 2014, Alabama began enforcing a strict photo ID law which requires voters to show a driver’s license or another form of photo ID in order to cast a ballot. Alabama did so despite the state’s own analysis, which found that at least 250,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or other acceptable photo ID. One such voter was Willie Mims, a 93-year-old African American who was turned away from his usual polling place because he did not have a driver’s license. African Americans like Mr. Mims very likely account for a disproportionate share of those thousands of voters that the photo ID law may disenfranchise. In addition, the federal National Voter Registration Act requires Alabama’s DPS offices to provide voters with opportunities to register to vote. Alabama recently agreed to adopt measures designed to increase such opportunities for voter registration.
In light of the close relationship between voting and driver’s license offices, and despite Alabama officials’ half-hearted denials, these closures will drastically reduce the number of locations where African-American voters can go to ensure their unfettered access to the ballot. These closings in the poorest, most rural parts of the state’s African-American community smack of the cavalier racism of the Jim Crow era and open yet another chapter in Alabama’s long and egregious history of suppressing the African-American vote.