In 2011, Alabama passed a voter ID law that required voters to provide a government issued state ID in order to vote in elections. Critics charged that the law would make it disproportionately difficult for poor voters and African-American voters in the state to vote. Republicans brushed off those criticisms by suggesting that the voter ID law was instead designed to eliminate in-person voter fraud, despite the fact that in-person voter fraud is almost non-existent.
However, Alabama has announced that it is now closing 31 driver’s license bureaus throughout the state, leaving 29 of the state’s counties without an office where voters can easily obtain a state-issued driver’s license. Not coincidentally, the impact of closures will be disproportionately felt by low income voters. Also unsurprisingly, offices targeted for closure are heavily concentrated in predominately African-American, Democratic leaning counties.
Driver’s license bureaus will be closed in heavily African-American and strongly Democratic, rural Black Belt counties. Barack Obama’s seven best counties in Alabama (Greene, Macon, Sumter, Lowndes, Bullock, Perry and Wilcox) all have African-American populations above 68 percent. In each of those counties, Barack Obama garnered at least 74 percent of the vote in 2012. All seven of those mostly black, strongly Democratic, counties will lose their driver’s license bureau, making it difficult for voters to obtain a state-issued ID.
The bureau closures are not exclusively slated for Democratic counties or for black majority counties. Nevertheless, it is telling that Barack Obama’s best performing county is losing its license bureau. Macon County, where Obama defeated Romney by a crushing 87 to 12.8 percent margin, and where nearly 83 percent of residents are African-American, will lose its ability to conveniently provide voter IDs. Half a state away, similarly sized Marion County, where less than 4 percent of residents are black, and where Romney defeated Obama 80 to 18.5 percent, a license bureau will remain open, as a place where mostly GOP voters can easily obtain a state-issued ID.
Likewise, license bureaus will remain open in mostly rural, but overwhelmingly white Blount and Cullman counties. In both of those counties, whites outnumber blacks 50 to 1, and Romney defeated Obama by over 69 percentage points. Lo and behold, their license bureaus are staying open. Imagine that.
Alabama officials will cite budget cuts as justifying the closures, and they will surely argue that the selection of which offices they decided to close was not politically or racially motivated. Regardless of what rationale they use, however, it remains clear that closing driver’s license bureaus in predominately African-American counties will create undue hardship for black voters needing a valid ID to cast their ballot.
Removing licensing bureaus from these counties is a de facto poll tax that is being imposed most severely on African-American residents of Alabama’s Black Belt counties. Whether the closing of license bureaus is a deliberate or an accidental attempt to disenfranchise mostly black, mostly Democratic, voters is almost irrelevant. Regardless of motive, the effect is the same.
The license bureau closures confirm that Alabama’s voter ID law will effectively make it more difficult for African-American Democratic voters to cast their votes. A civil rights lawsuit should be filed immediately, and given the consequences of the office closures, such a lawsuit would stand a good chance of succeeding.