The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Alabama will save $11 million — but undermine claims that Voter ID is race-neutral

President Obama takes part in early voting at a polling station in Chicago in October 2014. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)
Placeholder while article actions load

UPDATE: This post has been updated to describe the remaining state identification options in Alabama and what some voting rights researchers say are the limits of this approach.

Officially, the news out of Alabama is this:

Alabama's Republican-controlled legislature and governor's office are committed to cutting the state's budget and the size of state government. That means the state will slice into the money available to a number of public agencies. And the Department of Public Safety, which includes the state's offices that issue driver's licenses, will simply have to take an $11 million hit. To make that math work, the agency will shutter driver's license offices in the state's most sparsely populated counties.

But the net effect is this:

Every county in which black voters comprise more than 75 percent of the voter rolls and the bulk of Alabama communities that overwhelmingly voted for President Obama in 2012 will see their driver's license offices close.

Not surprisingly, civil rights and civil liberties groups across the state and the only black member of Alabama's congressional delegation have said plainly that the state's seemingly race-neutral move to save money is anything but.

Alabama, which eagerly joined in the recent push to require voters to provide state-issued identification to cast a ballot — a.k.a. Voter ID — will close 31 state driver's license offices, leaving the residents of 28 out of 67 counties without a place to obtain the most common form of ID. The counties most deeply and directly affected are those with populations so overwhelmingly black that in Alabama, they have long been referred to as the "black belt."

Although fewer than half of the counties will have no offices granting licenses, eight of the 10 counties with the largest non-white populations will be without one.

The history

The meaning of the area's moniker has evolved over time. The "black belt" term was initially a reference to the region's dark, rich soil. But the number of large plantations with massive slave populations also grew in this same area, and it remains home to large shares of the state's black population.

The reason history matters here at all is because the dynamics of political power and economic import build over time. Before the Civil War and for 100 years thereafter, rural counties in the black belt were a center of economic and political power in the state. But those levers of power were largely restricted — by practice, violence and threats — to the area's white residents.

In an effort to retain political power in rural areas and restrict it in the state's few urban ones, elected officials in Alabama refused to redistrict between 1901 and the 1960s. Then in the 1960s, the federal government became more aggressive in protecting the voting rights of African Americans, who were long excluded and unable to register or safely vote in states nationwide, including Alabama.

Most of that effort followed the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. Among its requirements: States such as Alabama had to seek approval for changes to voting practices, procedures or laws before they went into effect. The federal government or a three-judge panel would review proposed changes and reject those that seemed likely to reduce or in any way impede black voter participation or the ability of black voters to influence election outcomes.

And in the 1970s, the U.S. Supreme Court intervened, forcing the state to apportion congressional seats based on current population data, as the nation's Constitution requires. The redistricting that followed introduced a new voting pattern in Alabama: The state's overwhelmingly black counties went heavily for Democrats, while the rest of the state went heavily for Republican candidates.

(Interestingly enough, precisely what the Constitution's "one person, one vote" requirement really means — is that representation apportioned according to registered voters, the total population or something in between — is expected to land on the Supreme Court's docket again this year.)

The impact

For now, one thing is clear: Many of Alabama's sparsely populated and, in most cases, economically disadvantaged counties with large black populations will become places where it's harder to obtain the most common type of state-issued ID required to vote. As a workaround, offices in each county where people can register to vote will begin issuing cards that can ultimately be used to cast a ballot. But to obtain a driver's license, people in these counties must  find a means and time to visit some other place.

Take a close look at the chart below. Counties marked by an asterisk are part of the black belt. Those with long gray lines have large black populations. And the list of counties slated to lose their license offices includes many of those same places:  Butler, Bullock, Choctaw, Crenshaw, Hale, Greene, Lowndes, Macon, Perry, Sumter and Wilcox counties.

Just to be clear, here are the critical numbers again. Right now, 31 offices around the state are slated to close. Of these, 22 are in majority white counties and eight are in majority black ones. Looked at that way, the plan to close driver's license offices and save money would appear to have a bigger effect on the state's white residents. But look a little more closely and the real ramifications of the closures become clear. Every county in which 75 percent or more of the registered voters are black will lose its office. That means fundamentally that in counties with the largest black and largely Democratic-leaning bits of the state's population, it's now going to be a lot harder to obtain and maintain the state identification needed to vote. See the issue?

Civil liberties and civil rights groups have pointed out that the office-closure plan is precisely the sort of policy change that Alabama would have had to clear with federal officials under sections of the Voting Rights Act essentially nullified by the Supreme Court in 2013. And did we mention that the case that led to those changes was brought by officials in Perry County, Ala.? Now that the court has ruled, Perry County and the rest of the state are free to move ahead closing license offices as planned. The only thing that could potentially stop them: A successful suit brought by voters or rights groups.

Advocates of the office closures argue that Alabama residents can visit voter registration offices located in every country and during hours that vary in every place, obtain a form of identification that will allow them to vote, if they can also provide other supporting documents verifying their identity (a birth certificate, a passport, etc.). So, these folks argue, there's no problem. Of course, there are plenty of folks who disagree and some firm evidence that the changes will prove most onerous for those who are poor, those do not have or can not afford to obtain certain documents or the transportation and time to do so.

The situation in Alabama makes this much clear:

Policy can, on its face, look and sound race-neutral, but the impact can be vastly disparate. In this case, the poor are less likely to have their own car as well as the documents necessary to obtain a state-issued ID in the first place. The same is also true of the state's black residents. Now, in order to vote, people in Alabama will need both their documents and a car or at least a good friend willing to do some driving if they don't already have state issued ID or a current one will soon expire.

Perhaps that's why most of the state's major newspaper columnists have come right out and said some variation of this. Alabama might have budget challenges, but the way that state has opted to address them would appear to undermine the long-running insistence among Voter ID supporters that the laws aren't intended to suppress anyone's votes -- or have that practical effect.