HOOVER, Ala. — Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Rodham Clinton came to Alabama on Saturday and waded into the national debate over voter rights, criticizing Republican leaders in this state and others for ID laws that she said have made voting harder for people of color and young people, two groups critical to her chances of winning the presidency.
Clinton slammed Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley (R) for closing 31 driver-licensing offices in rural, mostly black areas, eliminating a source for the government-issued photo ID that is now required to vote in Alabama.
“This is wrong,” Clinton said. “Fifty years after Rosa Parks sat and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and John Lewis bled, it is hard to believe that we are back having this same debate” about voting rights for black Americans.
The announcement of the closures was met with swift condemnation by Democrats and voting rights advocates in Alabama and across the country. On Friday, Bentley partially reversed the decision, saying that the offices would open in the affected areas once a month. Clinton said that still wasn’t good enough.
“I’m proud of everyone in Alabama who leapt into action to fight this misguided decision to close those driver’s license offices, and you’ve got people all over this nation who are rooting for and standing with you,” Clinton said. “And it’s time for your governor and the legislature not only to listen to their constituents, but to listen to their conscience about what it means to be a leader in our country.”
The closures stoked several days of criticism from voting rights advocates and was the subject of national news coverage and commentary. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, the only Democratic member of Alabama’s congressional delegation, called for a Justice Department investigation. Last week, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson met with Bentley.
The governor has argued that the closures were necessary to reduce costs, and he rejected allegations that he was seeking to disenfranchise black voters.
“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.
Anne Permaloff, president of the League of Women Voters of Alabama, said she does not believe that Republican state lawmakers were trying to hurt black voters. But, she said, given the state’s history of voter discrimination and intimidation, the governor should have known better.
“I would think they would have thought a little more about it. We just had the ‘Selma’ movie, and the reenactment of the Selma march and all the publicity about the anniversary of the Voting Rights Act,” Permaloff said. “But they seemed to concentrate their full attention simply on saving money. I honestly think they were shocked when the reaction happened.”
That reaction suggests that the racially charged debate over voting rights will grow louder as the two sides gear up for the 2016 presidential race, the first national election since a Supreme Court decision that significantly weakened the Voting Rights Act. The case that led to the ruling originated in Shelby County, a suburb of Birmingham, which sued for relief from Section 5 of the act. Under that portion, states with a history of discriminating against minority voters need to get approval, or “pre-clearance,” from the Justice Department before changing voting laws and procedures.
But Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., speaking for the majority in the 5-to-4 ruling, argued that “our country has changed” and such protections against racial discrimination were no longer needed.
Republican-led state governments moved forward with a flurry of laws calling for strict voter ID requirements and doing away with same-day registration. Democratic Party activists have argued that the laws are burdensome and confusing. For instance, in Texas, a gun permit is acceptable to vote, but not a college ID.
Alabama officials said the shuttered offices accounted for only 5 percent of the 1.2 million licenses the state issues annually. They also said that registrar’s offices in each county issue free voter ID cards. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said in an interview Friday that obtaining an acceptable photo ID does not appear to be a problem. He said there are “1.3 million more people in our state that have ID than we have registered to vote.”
Proponents say the laws are aimed at curbing voter fraud. But the Justice Department and legal experts say that a minuscule number of people show up at the polls to impersonate another voter.
Opponents of such laws say that the real intention is to suppress participation by people of color and young voters, who tend not to support the GOP.
Clinton, in her comments Saturday to about 875 people at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, took swipes at some of the Republican presidential candidates, noting that former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Rubio (Fla.) have dismissed the arguments of voting rights advocates. And she criticized Ohio Gov. John Kasich for curbing early voting, an election feature of which a large percentage of African Americans took advantage.
“For every Republican governor working to roll back voting rights, there are Americans determined to keep marching forward,” Clinton said. She called for Congress to pass the Voting Rights Advancement Act, which would restore the pre-clearance clause.
“My bill!” Sewell shouted from the audience.
“And it’s your congresswoman’s bill!” Clinton acknowledged.
Clinton also called for expanding early voting and automatic voter registration for all citizens when they turn 18.
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), who also is seeking the Democratic nomination, routinely criticizes voter ID laws. He did not attend Saturday’s event in Alabama, but he said in a statement: “Republican cowards all across the country, including Alabama, are very clearly trying to win elections by suppressing the vote and making it harder for low-income people, minorities, young people and seniors to vote. That has to change. Anyone 18 years of age or older should be automatically registered to vote.”
Although Alabama hasn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Clinton said she was building an organization in the state to help elect Democrats in offices up and down the ballot. The state’s Democratic primary is March 1.
Clinton also seemed eager to let the audience know that she and President Obama had moved on beyond their hard-fought primary battle in 2008, which left some black voters angry at Clinton and her husband, former president Bill Clinton.
She talked about how Obama twice asked her to be his secretary of state and she twice declined, but he told her he would not take no for an answer. She said that when she mentioned this to her husband, he quipped, “You know, I asked you twice to marry me, and you said, ‘No.’ ”
The crowd cracked up.