NEWS: Critics accused Alabama of suppressing black votes after the state instituted provisions for requiring ID from voters and announced plans to shutter DMV locations in eight out of 10 predominantly black counties.
On 1 October 2015 the web site Raw Story published an article titled "Alabama to stop issuing driver’s licenses in counties with 75% black registered voters," reporting:
The state of Alabama, which requires a photo ID to vote, announced this week that it would stop issuing driver’s licenses in counties where 75 percent of registered voters are black.
Due to budget cuts, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said that 31 satellite DMV offices would no longer have access to driver’s licenses examiners, meaning that residents will need to travel to other counties to apply for licenses. The move comes just one year after the state’s voter photo ID law went into effect.
That article primarily comprised quotes excerpted from a 30 September 2015 Alabama Media Group op-ed titled "Alabama sends message: We are too broke to care about right and wrong." That editorial held that irrespective of lawmaker intent, the closure of driver license bureaus in eight out of 10 predominantly black counties (Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes, Bullock, Perry, Wilcox, Dallas, Hale, and Montgomery) would usher in a de facto suppression of black votes:
All but Dallas and Montgomery will be closed.
Closed. In a state in which driver licenses or special photo IDs are a requirement for voting ... Every single county in which blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed. Every one ... Look at the 15 counties that voted for President Barack Obama in the last presidential election. The state just decided to close driver license offices in 53 percent of them.
Look at the five counties that voted most solidly Democratic? Macon, Greene, Sumter, Lowndes and Bullock counties all had their driver license offices closed.
Look at the 10 that voted most solidly for Obama? Of those, eight – again all but Dallas and the state capital of Montgomery – had their offices closed.
The editorial further noted that Alabama's controversial voter ID law went into effect in 2014 after its passage in 2011, amid objections that the provisions disproportionately affected black voters. An article published on 24 November 2014 cited subsequent lower voter turnout as a potential outcome of the law:
Many Democrats opposed the law, saying it was intended to suppress the vote by making it harder on the elderly and people with no driver's license. Opponents also said there was little evidence of voter impersonation fraud.
Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, an outspoken opponent of the law before the election, said it was a factor in the 40 percent turnout, lowest for a general election since at least 1986.
"My concerns are even greater," Sanders said.
A separate opinion piece also published on 30 September 2015 titled "Voter ID and driver's license office closures black-out Alabama's Black Belt" and similarly contrasted the closures with the 2014 implementation of voter ID laws, concluding:
When the state passed Voter ID, Republican lawmakers argued that it was supposed to prevent voter fraud. Democrats said the law was written to disenfranchise black voters and suppress the voice of the poor.
Maybe, maybe not.
But put these two things together — Voter ID and 29 counties without a place where you can get one — and Voter ID becomes what the Democrats always said it was.
However, a 30 September 2015 article explained that the closures were announced by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) as part of anticipated budget cuts set to take effect on 1 October 2015. ALEA maintained that the offices in question processed only a small percentage of Alabama Driver License transactions performed each year:
ALEA said the reduction in service at the driver's license offices was caused by a cut in the agency's General Fund appropriation.
Earlier this year, ALEA raised the fee for a driver license renewal from $23.50 cost $36.25, which the agency said would cover more of the cost of producing the license.
Collier said that was an effort to be proactive on funding ALEA services, but the Legislature reduced ALEA's budget by the amount the fee increase is expected to bring in.
Late in the day on 30 September 2015, Alabama's Secretary of State John Merrill said that "state election officials 'will issue (photo voter I.D. cards) on [their] own" to ensure residents in affected counties retain the ability to obtain state-issued ID for the purposes of voting.
Alabama governor Robert Bentley also asserted that the closure of some driver's licenses offices in the state was strictly a budgetary measure that had nothing to do with voting issues:
Gov. Robert Bentley strongly pushed back against charges that a decision to close 31 driver's licenses offices across the state is aimed at making it more difficult for black Alabamians to vote.
"As far as voting rights, this (closings) has nothing to do with that," Bentley said this morning during an appearance in Eva in Morgan County.
The governor said charges by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, and presidential candidate Hillary Clinton that the closing of the DMV offices represent an effort to suppress blacks from voting is just not true.
The governor acknowledged that the closing of the DMV offices will impact first time drivers and drivers from other states who move to Alabama and have to undergo testing.
"The last time I looked, 16-year-olds that get their license at a driver's licenses place, don't vote," said Bentley. "That's all we're doing. We're repositioning people in the state because we don't have enough funds in this state to keep these offices open."
Alabama requires every voter to have a valid photo ID to cast a ballot. While a driver's license is the most common form of ID in the state, Bentley said anyone without a driver's license can go to any county register's office and have a photo ID made and the closing of the DMV offices will not change that fact.
Bentley also pointed out that every probate judge in the state has the authority to renew driver's licenses and the closing of the DMV offices will not change that fact.
Bentley said not only is the state not engaged in any effort to curtail voting, it is doing all it can to make sure anyone who wants to vote will be able to register to vote.
"We will go to people's houses to have their picture made if they don't have a photo ID in the state of Alabama," said Bentley. "We're not ever going to do anything to keep people in the state of Alabama from voting. And for them to jump to a conclusion like that, that is politics at its worst."