We think voting should be easy; as easy as picking out your favorite Ben & Jerry’s flavor, in fact. Sometimes voting is the opposite of easy, though, and the opposite of delicious.
The cause of the voter participation problem is a sticky subject, considering it’s rooted in the groundbreaking piece of legislation engineered to be its savior. In 1965, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) provided broad protections against voter disenfranchisement, ending poll taxes, literacy tests and a whole host of other horrific disenfranchisement techniques. In 2013, 48 years later, a Supreme Court decision squandered that progress by striking down one of the most important parts of the VRA – the section that required states to have any changes to their voting laws approved by the federal government, especially states with a history of discrimination. That means that today, states can enact discriminatory voting laws with reckless abandon.
Now Alabama, the state that birthed the VRA and championed the civil rights movement, has become one of the worst offenders—an illuminating case study for voter rights in reverse.
Disenfranchisement Déja Vu
On the surface, Shelby County, Alabama, is a bright, bustling place. The fastest growing county in the state, it encompasses 800 square miles of central Alabama, just south of Birmingham—a mix of quintessential farmland, and city and county parks brushed by the southern Appalachians. Scratch a little deeper, though, and it’s apparent that everything isn’t so swell in Shelby. The county notably brought the 2013 challenge that disemboweled the VRA. As a result, those states with a track record for voter discrimination, including Alabama, no longer have to approve their voting changes with the feds. And those changes have come in a flurry.
The fall from a system of federal watchdogging to one highlighted by plain-sight voter suppression in the hands of offending states has been jarring. After the Shelby County decision, Alabama enacted its voter ID law, which requires all voters to have a government-issued ID in order to access the polls. Then it shuttered 31 DMV locations – the same places that dole out the government-issued IDs that citizens use to vote. The kicker? Most of those locations reside in majority-black counties. “Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed,” wrote John Archibald of the Birmingham News. That’s bad news for a state where 250,000 registered voters don’t have a driver’s license or other acceptable form of voter ID.
The End of Voting Equality?
The answer is an unequivocal "no," so long as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) has anything to say about it. In a lawsuit filed last December, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund blasted Alabama’s voter ID law for discriminating against people of color and violating the VRA, calling it, “simply the latest chapter in Alabama’s long and brutal history of intentional racial discrimination.” The suit claims that Alabama’s ID law breaches Section 2 of the VRA, which bars racial discrimination in voting. Alabama, in its defense, says the DMV closures are merely a matter of cost-savings. But—let’s be blunt—at what cost? When saving a buck takes precedent over half a million potential votes, the bottom line looks a lot like bankruptcy at the ballot box.
Dear Alabama, we think you can do better.