Alabama now faces a federal lawsuit over its voter ID law after closing 30 or so driver’s licenses offices, many of them in areas with high African-American populations.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund is bringing the suit on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP. It was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court in the Northern District of Alabama.
“The Photo ID Law was conceived and operates as a purposeful device to further racial discrimination, and results in Alabama’s African-American and Latino (or Hispanic) voters having less opportunity than other members of the electorate to participate effectively in the political process and to elect candidates of their choice,” the complaint says, alleging the law violates the Voting Rights Act as well as the 14th and 15th Amendments of the Constitution.
In the NAACP LDF statement announcing the legal challenge, President and Director-Counsel Sherrilyn Ifill pointed to the DMV closures as prompting the suit.
“The State’s deliberate decision to enforce this discriminatory photo ID law, followed by the DMV office closures, has compelled us to take action,” Ifill said. The legal complaint references the closures as well.
When Alabama announced the driver’s licenses offices earlier this fall — blaming a tough budgetary situation — it said the closures had nothing to do with disenfranchising African Americans and that it will provide residents with plenty of opportunities to obtain a free ID that meets the requirements of the voter ID law.
Alabama originally passed a tough new voter ID law in 2011, but it wasn’t set to go into effect until the 2014 primaries. Meanwhile, in the 2013, the Supreme Court gutted a provision in the Voting Rights Act that had previously required Alabama to secure federal approval for changes in its voting laws. Alabama had not sought preclearance for its new voter ID law, and the Supreme Court decision cleared the way for Alabama to implement the law last year without the approval of the Justice Department or a federal court.
A paltry number of Alabamans have acquired the free IDs since the law came into effect, and civil rights activists say that those efforts are not enough to guarantee citizens can vote, particularly after the mass DMV closures.
“Alabama has rejected even modest suggestions to lessen the photo ID law’s impact,” NAACP LDF attorney Deuel Ross said in Wednesday’s statement, pointing to Alabama’s refusal to accept for photo IDs issued by public housing authorities.
News of the DMV closures prompted outcry from national lawmakers and Democratic 2016 frontrunner Hillary Clinton, who called it “a blast from the Jim Crow past.” The Department of Justice has been called on by some to investigate the closures; however, DOJ has not signaled it would be taking official legal action. Separately, the Department of Justice is involved in a major voter ID case coming out of Texas that is expected to eventually land in the Supreme Court.
Update: The office of Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, who is among officials named in the complaint, offered TPM the following statement:
“The lawsuit filed today claims that the photo ID requirement is an impediment to voting in our state. Empirical data would indicate that the photo ID requirement is in no way a barrier or obstacle to voting,” said Secretary Merrill. “The photo ID requirement was designed to preserve the credibility and the integrity of the electoral process. I voted for and was a co-sponsor of House Bill 19 that became Act Number 2011-673 in 2011, and I will defend the rights and freedoms of all our eligible citizens to register to vote, obtain a qualified photo voter ID, and participate in the electoral process!”
“In the office of the Secretary of State, we want to make it real easy to vote and real hard to cheat. As of today, there have been no credible reports of a lack of ability for someone to cast their vote because of this law. We are going to continue to register all eligible Alabamians to vote, we are going to abide by the photo ID law passed by the Alabama Legislature, and we are going to issue qualified government photo IDs to preserve voting integrity as long as I have the privilege to serve our citizens in this capacity!”