The governor of Alabama has partially reversed a decision to close more than 30 government offices that issue driver licenses and photo IDs, following weeks of criticism by civil rights advocates and Democratic lawmakers who say the action would make it harder for some black residents to get the identification needed to vote.
On Friday, Gov. Robert Bentley (R) said that instead of fully closing the 31 offices, most in rural communities around the state, the facilities would open once a month to serve residents.
The closures are part of service cuts in several agencies to balance the state's budget, state officials say.
Bentley took issue with the implication that his actions were racially motivated. "To suggest the closure of the driver's license offices is a racial issue is simply not true, and to suggest otherwise should be considered an effort to promote a political agenda," Bentley said in a statement.
The initial reaction to the office closures when first announced indicates that the racially charged debate around voting rights will continue as the parties gear up for the 2016 presidential election.
Friday’s announcement came a day before Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton is scheduled to visit the state to speak to black party activists. Clinton, in a statement shortly after the closures were announced, criticized state officials for closing the offices a year after enacting a law requiring voters to show specific types of photo identification at the polls. She called it “a blast from the Jim Crow past.”
Rep. Terri Sewell, the state’s only Democrat in Congress, has called on the Justice Department to investigate the situation. And last week the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a leading civil rights activist, came to Alabama to meet with the governor.
Although driver licenses and state photo IDs for non-drivers are the most popular forms of identification, Alabama officials argued that there were plenty of other alternatives for residents. Each county has a registrar’s office, which issues free photo voter IDs and the secretary of state's office also operates mobile voter ID vans that visit locations around the state, including street festivals and facilities such as nursing homes. Residents also can get their driver licenses renewed at other state offices, as well as online.
Proponents of strict voter ID laws, often championed by Republicans, say their efforts are aimed at curbing voter fraud.
Voting rights advocates, however, argue that such laws can pose burdens for young people and the elderly, and they resemble tactics used to discourage black voters before the passage of the 1965 Voting Right Act. Democrats say the laws are aimed at suppressing groups who tend to vote against the GOP.
A 2013 ruling the Supreme Court struck down a portion of the Voting Rights Act that required states that had a history of discriminating against black voters, such as Alabama, to get approval from the Justice Department before changing voting laws and procedures.
The Alabama law, which was passed in 2011, went into effect last year, after the Supreme Court ruling. Other states, including North Carolina and Texas, also passed or toughened voter ID laws after the court’s ruling.
Earlier this year, officials and activists converged on Selma, Ala., to observe the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Selma was the site of an iconic moment in civil rights movement, when protesters marching for voting rights were brutally beaten by state troopers as they attempted to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge en route to the state capitol in Montgomery.