Rep. Terri Sewell and the Rev. Jesse Jackson have both called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate the state of Alabama’s decision to close 31 Department of Motor Vehicle offices in predominantly Black counties. The move coincides with a 2011 state law which requires a government-issued ID to vote.
Sewell said the decision to close the DMV offices was a possible violation of her constituents right to vote. According to Talking Points Memo, Black people make up 75 percent of the population of the affected counties. Black people also tend to vote mainly for Democrats. Some Black residents interviewed by NPR said they faced an 80-mile round trip to the nearest DMV office. In a letter to Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Sewell said eight of the 14 counties in her district will be without a DMV office.
“Despite a budgetary pretext, the consequence of this decision is to deny the most vulnerable in Alabama an equal opportunity to obtain a means to vote,” Sewell wrote. “These closures will potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled and Black communities.”
Jackson criticized the move in an opinion piece in The Chicago Sun-Times.
“It is particularly outrageous that 50 years after Selma, when the country celebrates the courage of the civil rights marchers, we still witness efforts to suppress the vote, skewed to discriminate against minorities. Alabama’s actions demand a Justice Department investigation. And that demand should be met immediately,” he wrote.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, a Republican, denied the closures were designed to disenfranchise Black voters. He said outrage about the closures is being ginned up people from outside the state.
“The criticism is strictly a liberal attempt from people who are not from here, and don’t understand what’s going on with our people or our budget situation, they’re trying to use that to bring attention to our state in a negative light,” said Merrill, Alabama’s top elections official, in an interview with Talking Points Memo. “We’re doing everything we can and we are continuing to do everything we can to ensure that everyone in our state has the opportunity to do that, according to the law.”
However, Alabama has a long history of trying to suppress the Black vote. Protests against voter restriction laws in Selma led to the 1965 Voting Rights Act (VRA), although a 2013 Supreme Court decision gutted a key part of the bill.
Defenders of the closures say that people can obtain free voter ID cards from local boards of registrars, the Secretary of State’s office, or from a mobile unit that travels around the state. However Talking Points Memo said only about 1,500 IDs have been issued this year.
“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” Merrill told Talking Points Memo. “We can show you how we have attempted to accomplish this goal, but the fact that people don’t get them, that’s not our fault.”
Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton has weighed in on the issue. She is making voting rights a major part of her presidential campaign.
“Just a few years ago, Alabama passed a law requiring citizens to have a photo ID to vote. Now they’re shutting down places where people get those photo IDs. This is only going to make it harder for people to vote. It’s a blast from the Jim Crow past,” Clinton said in a statement.