Inside The Numbers: Alabama’s Free Voter ID Program Reaches Few Voters

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Facing accusations of bringing back Jim Crow, Alabama officials are arguing that the closure of 31 driver’s license offices will not make it harder to vote in the state — which requires government-issued photo IDs at the ballot box — because of the state’s efforts to provide a free state-issued ID for voting.

However, since the photo ID voting law went into effect in 2014, only a small portion of the estimated 250,000 Alabamans who do not already have the accepted IDs have obtained the free version. In 2014, an election year, only 5,294 of those IDs were issued, state officials told TPM.

The number of IDs issued this year is even smaller. As of September 28, 1,442 IDs had been issued since January 2, 2015.

Alabamans can get the IDs from the board of registrars in each of the state’s 67 counties, from the secretary of state’s office in the state capital or from a mobile site that travels the state. In an interview with TPM last week, Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill said the state had spent spent a “great deal of money” on educating voters about how to get proper IDs, and that the mobile van that makes the IDs will have visited all 67 counties by the end of the month.

However, as of last Monday, only 29 IDs were issued from the mobile units this year and four from the state capitol, according to the secretary of state’s office.

“You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make him drink,” Merrill told TPM. “We can show you how we have attempted to accomplish this goal, but the fact that people don’t get them, that’s not our fault.”

Civil rights activists point to several reasons for why, they say, the free ID program has been ineffective. For one, many of the black residents affected by the DMV closures live miles from the county offices that issue IDs and African-Americans are more likely to be dependent on public transport.

Furthermore, they argue that residents are discouraged by the felony warnings on the top of the free ID application, which is limited to those who do not have any of the other types of photo IDs accepted at polling places, like driver’s licenses.

U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) has asked the Department of Justice to investigate the effect the DMV closures could have on voting rights, while the NAACP Legal and Education Defense Fund has floated possible legal action.

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