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US Government

Is Alabama Trying to Disenfranchise Black Voters?

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), seen here announcing the introduction of the Voting Rights Advancement Act on June 24, 2015, has formally asked the Justice Department to investigate possible civil rights violations in Alabama. (YouTube screen grab)

Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL), seen here announcing the introduction of the Voting Rights Advancement Act on June 24, 2015, has formally asked the Justice Department to investigate possible civil rights violations in Alabama. (YouTube screen grab)

After enacting a strict voter identification law that has disproportionately affected black people, Alabama is closing 31 DMV offices, including those in every single county where blacks comprise more than 75 percent of registered voters.

Alabama’s Republican governor, Robert Bentley, insists the closure of 31 Department of Motor Vehicles offices has everything to do with budget considerations and “nothing to do with” making it more difficult for black people—who overwhelmingly support Democrat candidates—to vote.

But Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) doesn’t believe Bentley. “I grew up in Selma; I’m a third-generation Alabamian,” Sewell, who was raised during the voting rights struggles of the 1960s, told a panel on voting rights in Washington, D.C. on Tuesday. “My own dad stood in lines for water fountains labeled ‘colored.’ So now it’s frightening that we’re seeing a renewed assault on voting rights, including these DMV closures. It’s unconscionable and we should not just sit back and let this happen.”

Sewell is not sitting back. She has formally asked the US Justice Department to investigate the potential suppression of voting rights that could result from the DMV closures coupled with the state’s voter ID law, which has disenfranchised hundreds of blacks. Sewell has also invited US Attorney General Loretta Lynch to witness firsthand the effects of these measures.

“These closures will potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled, and black communities,” wrote Sewell in a letter sent on Monday to 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.”

“Terri Sewell, she does a great job for her district,” Bentley responded. “The only thing I wish she had done was call our office and gotten the facts,” chief among them that voter ID cards and driver license renewals will be available at county registrar’s offices and that mobile units distributing free ID cards will be visiting most counties.

There are other facts which paint a more alarming picture. Of the 10 Alabama counties with the highest percentages of non-white registered voters, eight will see their driver’s license offices closed. All counties in which blacks make up 75 percent or more of registered voters will no longer have DMV offices. These are also among the only counties in the state in which the majority of people vote Democrat. The five counties which vote most solidly Democrat— Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Bullock—will all have their DMV offices closed, as will eight of the 10 counties in which the highest percentage of voters cast ballots for Barack Obama. Many critics allege that the issue is as much, if not more, about helping Republicans get elected as it is about preventing blacks from voting.

According to the Center for American Progress, between 250,000 and 500,000 Alabamians currently do not have the IDs required to cast their votes.

“The state has clearly made a policy trying to disenfranchise certain blocks of voters,” Katherine Culliton-González, director of voter protection programs at the Advancement Project, a civil rights group, told MSNBC. “The majority are overwhelmingly African-American and this latest move is only going to make it harder for African-Americans to vote. We need to make sure to continue to protest and tell the state to stop disenfranchising voters of color, as well as anyone else who doesn’t have the ID.”

“These are poor rural communities where people don’t have cars,” said Rep. Sewell. “They struggle to get to their jobs let alone to an ID office,” she said of the people who could be most affected by the DMV closures.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill responded by comparing those people to animals and blaming them for their own potential disenfranchisement.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” Merrill told TPM Muckraker. “The fact that people don’t get [IDs], that’s not our fault.”

Sewell isn’t the only one taking action in an attempt to ensure that everyone who wants to vote in Alabama can do so without being excessively burdened. The NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund wrote to state leaders last week suggesting the possibility of legal action for “creating a substantial and disproportionate burden on black people’s ability to participate in the political process in Alabama.” The NAACP accuses Alabama of likely violating Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, which “prohibits voting practices or procedures that discriminate” against any particular race.

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