Part 6 in a series detailing states’ efforts to keep citizens from voting.
As Alabama voters trudged to the polls on June 3, many stepped into a new elections landscape, while for others, the view was all too familiar.
In 2011, after Republicans took control of the state Legislature, they introduced laws that, some say, harken back to the days of segregation, including laws that suppress the votes of minorities and the poor.
“We do know there have been reports of changes to polling places and alleged voter purges over the past couple months. None of that is confirmed,” said Deuel Ross, an attorney with the Political Participation Group of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund. “What we do know for sure is that in 2011, the same Alabama Legislature that passed a housing law that used discriminatory language against Latinos passed a voter ID law that is one of the most restrictive in the country.”
House Bill 19, which was signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley and went into effect beginning with this June’s primaries, requires an Alabama voter to have a specific type of photo identification at the polls in order to vote.
Some would argue that the law is by no means draconian, as is Texas’ or North Carolina’s, since it actually allows the use of student IDs and employee IDs issued by federal, state or local governments. But, while voters who don’t show a photo ID will generally be allowed to cast a provisional ballot, they must then bring the required ID to an election office by 5 p.m. on Friday after Election Day.
And, there are other troubling provisions reminiscent of Alabama’s discriminatory past, civic participation advocates say.
“Alabama has long been recognized by Congress and the federal courts as one of the worst actors in passing discriminatory election laws,” Ross said. He added of HB 19, “This is exactly the same law Alabama used in the 1960s to prevent African Americans from voting…. It does seem as if they’re dusting off these Jim Crow laws and re-instituting them.”
Of particular concern is a stipulation that allows a voter lacking the required photo identification to vote if two election officials offer sworn statements (“vouchers”) saying they know the individual.
Most poll workers in Alabama are White, Ross said. And, according to a recent Reuters poll, 71 percent of White Alabamans have fewer than five close friends of another race or ethnicity and 37 percent have none.
“Which means Latinos and blacks would be less likely to be vouched for,” Ross said.
The LDF, along with state branches of the NAACP, National Urban League, the 21st Century Youth Leadership Movement and other organizations, sent a letter to the office of Secretary of State Jim Bennett on March 3 warning of the potential ramifications of the voucher provision.
“The SOS’s inaction in providing guidance has rendered the voucher provision itself dangerously ambiguous and discriminatory,” the letter stated, and “gives election officials ‘the arbitrary power to accept or reject any prospective elector.’”
In a follow-up letter on May 29, the LDF again warned that Bennett’s current interpretation of HB19 was unconstitutional and violated the Voting Rights Act, which banned “any requirement that a person as a prerequisite for voting…prove his qualifications by the voucher of registered voters or members of any other class.” In the case of HB19, that class comprises mostly-White poll workers.
"The Secretary’s insistence on administering a prohibited device is deeply disturbing and likely unconstitutional,” the May 29 letter read. “The racially toxic legislative session in which the photo identification law was passed; the substantial burdens that the law will place on the half-a-million registered voters in Alabama who lack state-issued photo identification; and now the broad discretion that your proposed rules vest in election officials across the State, in tandem, make clear that the State intends to operate both the photo and positive identification requirements as unconstitutional devices to permit racial discrimination."
The LDF urged Bennett to ameliorate the law—or at least its implementation—to mitigate its discriminatory effects before the June 3 primaries. But, Ross said, their efforts have so far come to nil.
“The secretary of state knows this interpretation of the law violates the Voting Rights Act. Unfortunately, he’s not been responsive to changing the law,” the civil rights attorney said. “He’s been aware of this problem for three months.”
The old-school voucher device is something that would have likely been stopped by the Justice Department via the Section 5 provision of the Voting Rights Act. Since the Supreme Court hobbled the provision in June 2013 via its ruling in Shelby v. Holder, however, legal action is left up to individuals and organizations.
Volunteers from the NAACP and other civil rights groups planned to monitor the polls on June 3. Ross said the LDF has not yet decided on a legal or any other course of action.