Hillary Rodham Clinton joined Democratic officials in Alabama in criticizing a decision by state officials to shutter 31 satellite driver’s-license offices, mostly in areas heavily populated by African Americans, a move that could make it harder for those residents to get photo IDs needed to vote.
Alabama’s voter-identification law went into effect last year, requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID at the polls. A state-issued driver’s license is the most popular form of identification, and critics say the closure of offices that issue them is yet another barrier for poor and minority voters.
“It’s a blast from the Jim Crow past,” Clinton said in a statement Friday criticizing the move and calling on state officials to reverse the decision.
The head of the Alabama Democratic Party said she is in touch with voting rights advocates about asking the Justice Department to look into the closures.
The issue of voting rights, particularly alarm at new laws requiring voters to present photo IDs, was a major issue in the 2012 election. Political activists and voting rights advocates used the threat of voter suppression to boost turnout among minority voters, who showed up in record numbers to help guarantee President Obama's reelection.
Clinton and her main rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), have both spoken forcefully against laws and practices that they say make it harder for young people and minorities to vote.
Officials at the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency say the closures were necessary after deep cuts to the agency’s budget. The driver’s-license offices in question were operated on a part-time basis and, according to a news release, accounted for less than 5 percent of the 1.2 million driver’s licenses that Alabama issues each year. Earlier this year, the agency increased the fee for renewing a driver's license from $23.50 to $36.25.
Some leaders in the GOP-controlled Alabama House had inserted language in the spending plan forbidding the closure of driver’s license offices, citing the potential hardship on residents in rural areas. The governor argued that the language was an intrusion of his executive powers, and the closures took effect with the next fiscal year on Oct. 1. In addition, five state parks and several National Guard installations were closed in the budget.
Anna Morris, spokeswoman for the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, said via e-mail that 44 driver's-license offices will remain open throughout the state and that other officials, including probate judges and revenue commissioners, will continue to handle renewals. Residents also can renew their driver’s licenses online. She also noted that the Secretary of State's office also issues free voter photo ID cards in all of Alabama's 67 counties.
Terry Lathan, chair of the Alabama Republican Party, dismissed arguments that the closures will pose a hardship to voting.
“There have been quick and efficient plans to accommodate any registered voter in Alabama who needs a free photo voter ID. No voter will be denied that opportunity regardless of where they reside in our state,” Lathan said in an e-mail. “Most voters already have some type of government picture identification, but for those that don't they will find it easy to acquire one in Alabama.”
Nancy Worley, chair of the state’s Democratic Party, said the closures will make it harder on poor, elderly and working residents to get licenses. “Once again the Republicans are attempting to intimidate voters and harm working people,” she said, adding that other cuts in the budget have fallen disproportionately on communities in need.
“The Alabama Democratic Party is very much opposed to the closure of these offices,” Worley said in a phone interview. “We’re exploring options with the Department of Justice because we believe this does constitute vote suppression.”
Rep. Terri A. Sewell, the only Democratic member of the Alabama congressional delegation, said in a statement that the closures of the office, combined with the requirement for voters to show a photo ID, "is eerily reminiscent of past, discriminatory practices such as poll taxes and literacy tests that restricted the black vote."
It was a 2013 decision by the U. S. Supreme Court in a case from Shelby County, Ala., outside Birmingham, that struck down a major provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Previously. states such as Alabama, which had shown a history of using intimidation and other tactics to discourage black residents from voting, could not change voting laws and procedures without getting clearance from the Justice Department. After the ruling, those states no longer had to get prior federal approval. Several states led by Republican governors and legislatures have moved aggressively to modify voting procedures, including requiring photo IDs and cutting back on early voting. The GOP has said the laws are intended to weed out voter fraud. Voting rights activists say the laws are intended to dissuade minority and young people, who mostly vote Democratic, from going to the polls.
Clinton said in her statement that if elected she will “push for automatic voter registration for every American when they turn 18.” She also said she would “work with Congress to restore key protections of the Voting Rights Act.” In June, Clinton gave a speech in Texas calling for these and other changes to make it easier for people to vote.
Sanders has made voting rights a part of his standard stump speech, calling officials who support and pass voter-ID laws “political cowards” for trying to keep people from voting. Last month he spoke at a rally on the Mall celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Former Maryland governor Martin O'Malley, who also is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, has called for an amendment to the Constitution guaranteeing the right to vote.