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Published — October 21, 2020

In Alabama, a long history of suppressing Black votes continues

The fight over absentee ballots, poor outreach and lax management sow confusion.

Introduction

Alabama is the state that brought the lawsuit in 2013 that gutted the Voting Rights Act and allowed other states — mostly southern ones — to immediately pass long-wished-for voter laws and local rules that effectively suppress the Black and Latino vote. Alabama officials continue to defend voter restrictions imposed during the past few years and block new efforts to make it easier to vote.

On a positive note, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill expanded absentee voting this year, allowing anyone worried about exposure to COVID-19 to request a ballot. But Merrill, a Democrat turned Republican who has served as secretary of state since 2015, remains opposed to the removal of other barriers.

The state is one of 11 that do not offer early voting. “There is no future for early voting as long as I’m secretary of state,” Merrill said after the 2018 midterm elections.

Merrill also appealed an August court ruling that had suspended a state requirement that two witnesses or a notary sign a voter’s absentee ballot and to include a photocopy of the voter’s ID, with some exceptions. Alabama is one of only 11 states that require a witness or notary to sign a voter’s absentee ballot. This month, a federal judge overturned the lower court ruling, which applied only to counties that include the cities of Birmingham, Auburn and Mobile. 

The five groups that sued — including the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program — said the requirement puts at high risk those most susceptible to COVID-19. The groups also argued that many disabled and low-income people don’t have in-home access to equipment to photocopy their ID. Alabama contended that the restrictions are needed to fight voter fraud, but has offered no evidence that it has occurred.

In the same ruling, however, the federal judge upheld the lower court’s decision that allows counties to offer curbside collection of absentee ballots. The state has appealed the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that counties don’t have the time to make it available for this year’s election.

Alabama’s voter suppression has a long history, rooted in the state constitution. When delegates gathered in 1901 to rewrite the constitution, convention Chairman John Knox opened the proceedings saying their goal was “to establish white supremacy in this state.” At the time, Black residents made up 45% of the state population, and the wealthy white political establishment worried they would join with low-income white residents to dominate state politics.

The state adopted a poll tax and a literacy test, and established certain property requirements to vote. People convicted of certain crimes were not permitted to cast a ballot.

Decades later, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 required Alabama, along with several other states, to seek clearance before any voting laws and rules could be considered. The law was credited with blocking Alabama from passing more than 100 proposed changes to voting laws or rules that the Justice Department concluded were discriminatory against people of color. 

But in 2013, that ended. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder that pre-clearance was unconstitutional. Immediately, the state and local governments began to impose barriers that disproportionately suppressed the Black vote, including establishing a voter ID requirement, shuttering driver’s license offices and polling places, and purging voter rolls.

“I think the biggest issue in Alabama and a lot of states is the conception that the right to vote doesn’t belong to the citizen, it belongs to the state to mete out to the citizen,” said Jenny Carroll, a professor at the University of Alabama School of Law and chairwoman of the Alabama Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. “The state argues it’s protecting my vote by taking it away from me or by making it harder to vote.”

Here’s a look at some of the most significant restrictions to voting rights and access in the state:

Motor vehicle offices closed

Alabama residents must present one of 12 forms of photo ID to vote. The most popular ID is a driver’s license, a nondriver identification or an Alabama Photo Voter ID card. Residents typically get those IDs at one of the state’s Motor Vehicles Division offices, the County Clerk’s office or a library.  

In 2015, shortly after the Shelby County ruling, then-Gov. Robert Bentley closed 31 motor vehicle offices for budgetary reasons. A state study concluded the closures disproportionately impacted Black communities. Of the 11 Alabama counties that had a majority-minority population, eight — about 73% — had a motor vehicle office closed. Of the remaining 56 counties with majority-white populations, 41% saw a closure.

The state responded by reopening some offices with limited hours, but access remains a problem in some Black counties, Carroll said. For example, in Wilcox County, which is 71% Black and has a median income of a little more than $27,000, the single motor vehicle office that the state reopened doesn’t have a website where residents could find out the hours it was open.

Carroll said when she called the listed phone number, no one answered, and there was no recorded message. When she called the county clerk’s office for information, Carroll said she was told she could travel to another county to obtain a driver’s license, the closest of which is 30 miles away.

Other motor vehicle offices don’t post hours of operation or answer phone calls, according to a report filed in February by the Alabama Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

This disproportionately affects Black, Latino and low-income voters. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund found in a 2017 analysis of registered voters in Alabama that as many as 118,000 residents didn’t have a photo ID and couldn’t vote.

“Simply put, for citizens in these predominantly black, predominantly poor, and predominantly rural counties, … the [motor vehicle] office is an illusory source of voting identification,” the civil rights advisory committee concluded.

Felony disenfranchisement

The Alabama Constitution blocks residents from voting if they were convicted of crimes of “moral turpitude.” The list included murder, burglary, rape — and “assault and battery on the wife.” The white authors’ intention to disenfranchise Black residents was clear when the delegate who introduced the provision said, “The crime of wife-beating alone would disqualify 60 percent of Negroes.”

But in the 100-plus years that followed, counties had different definitions of what was a crime of moral turpitude, leading to unequal access to the ballot box. A study concluded that 15% of Black voters were disenfranchised because of felony conviction compared with less than 5% of white voters.

In 2016, Alabama passed a law defining crimes that would disqualify a resident from registering to vote. The law has had a positive impact, increasing the voter rolls for those convicted of a crime, particularly for Black residents, according to the Alabama civil rights advisory committee.

But the implementation of the law has been spotty, leaving many Alabama residents with a conviction of even misdemeanor crimes confused as to whether they are eligible to vote. (They are.) The secretary of state’s office has done little to inform those convicted of felonies about the change in the law, resulting in as many as 60,000 eligible people not registering to vote. Half of all states have laws requiring the state to notify people that their voting rights have been reinstated, but Alabama has no standard practice to do so. 

Alabama’s application process to restore voting rights is complicated and often requires someone knowledgeable in the law to provide assistance. Also, many would-be voters must pay all penalties related to their sentence, such as court fines, fees and victim restitution, before they can register to vote. If the debt is not paid within 90 days, a 30% collection fee is charged. As many as one-third of all applications to restore the eligibility to vote were denied due to outstanding court debt. The financial burden is particularly difficult for low-income people, blocking them from reinstating their eligibility to vote.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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