I work with poor, black Alabamians. Many of them don’t have cars or driver’s licenses and make under $10,000 a year. They cannot afford to pay someone to drive them to the motor vehicles or registrar’s office, which is often miles away.
Photo ID laws are written to make it difficult for people like them to vote. And that’s exactly what happens. A study by Zoltan Hajnal, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego, comparing the 2012 and 2016 presidential elections, found that the voter ID law kept black voters from the polls. After Alabama implemented its strict voter ID law, turnout in its most racially diverse counties declined by almost 5 percentage points, which is even more than the drop in diverse counties in other states.
The study controls for numerous factors that might otherwise affect an election: how much money was spent on the races; the state’s partisan makeup; changes in electoral laws like early voting and day-of registration; and shifts in incentives to vote, like which party controls the state legislature.
In Alabama, an estimated 118,000 registered voters do not have a photo ID they can use to vote. Black and Latino voters are nearly twice as likely as white voters to lack such documentation.
In other words, Alabama’s law is nothing but a naked attempt to suppress the voting rights of people of color. That’s why my organization, Greater Birmingham Ministries, with the help of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, has sued the state to block the photo ID law. The case will go to trial in February.
When the law was passed in 2011, it so reeked of discrimination that state politicians didn’t bother to submit it to the federal government for approval, as Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act required. For decades, Section 5 had acted as a crucial prophylactic, stopping discriminatory voting laws before any election. Instead the ID law remained dormant until June 2013, when the Supreme Court’s devastating ruling in Shelby County v. Holder suspended Section 5’s preclearance requirement.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, then a United States senator, applauded the ruling as “good news” for the South. For Mr. Sessions, who called the Voting Rights Act an “intrusive” piece of legislation, it was a victory. But for voters in Alabama and the rest of the South, it was terrible news.
It left states like Alabama, Texas and North Carolina free to test the limits of voter suppression. Indeed, after the decision, Alabama announced the photo ID law would go into effect without federal approval.
The photo ID law isn’t the only obstacle in front of Alabama voters. My organization is also challenging the state’s felon disfranchisement law, which affects an estimated 250,000 people here — 15 percent of Alabama’s black voting age population, but fewer than five percent of whites.
The law bars people with felonies of “moral turpitude” from voting. For decades such crimes were ill defined, but once included things like miscegenation. A new law narrowed the list of disfranchising crimes, but a federal judge ruled this summer that the state is not required to inform people with convictions who couldn’t vote under the old law that they may now register to vote.
Sadly, on Tuesday, many of the voters who would most benefit from picking lawmakers who will represent their interests in the Senate will be kept away from the polls. Those voters are disparaged for their purported disengagement with the election, while the state’s voter suppression campaign is largely ignored.
We’ve made too much progress to tolerate this. Federal courts must reject the voter ID law. Congress needs to restore the Voting Rights Act to its full strength. Nothing less than our democracy is at stake.
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