A LITTLE OVER a year ago, Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) announced he would close dozens of driver’s license offices — many in poor and minority areas — ostensibly to save money. Nearly all of Alabama’s majority African American counties were to be hit. This rightly prompted a national outcry. Alabama is one of the states that unnecessarily requires people to present picture IDs to vote. Making it harder for people in minority communities to get driver’s licenses only enhanced the potential suppressive impact on minority voter turnout.
After Mr. Bentley hastily announced a partial and inadequate reversal, the story did not get much subsequent national news coverage. Luckily, the federal government did not forget. The U.S. Department of Transportation announced recently it had struck an agreement with Alabama officials to expand the hours that driver’s license services will be available across the state. The agency found that the license office closures hit African American residents harder than others, running afoul of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids discrimination in state programs that take federal money.
Although Alabama did not concur with this assessment, it nevertheless agreed to ramp up driver’s license services, sharply increasing the hours officials will be available to process license applications in various parts of the state. Some offices that were open only once a month will now see people two or three times a month — still not much, but an improvement for working people who may not have flexible schedules.
Even if one accepts Alabama officials’ insistence that they scaled back license services because of a strapped state treasury, not in order to discriminate, federal intervention should never have been required. Alabama’s leaders should have been able to figure out how to fund the basic functions of government. If they could not do that, they should have been more careful to avoid cutting the budget in a way that was sure to have disproportionate effects on African Americans. It was not hard to see how the selective license office closures would exacerbate the negative effects of another bad policy — voter ID. For that matter, the state should never have required voter ID in the first place, since voter impersonation is a practically nonexistent problem in the United States.
Just as states can and should push back against federal overreach, careful and conscientious enforcement of federal law is necessary to protect Americans when their state governments betray its letter and spirit. This is an essential element of American federalism that has safeguarded people, particularly minorities, from abuse.
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