As Alabama Goes to the Polls, Worries Emerge That Some Are Denied Voting Rights
Since last year, Lorenzo French says he’s helped about 50 people in rural Greene County regain their ability to vote.
Many of them were improperly removed from voter rolls because they had a felony conviction, though not the type that should have banned them from voting, French said. Others didn’t have photo identification, a requirement to vote in Alabama since 2014.
“That’s my job,” French, chair of the Greene County Democrats, said. “To find the people who can’t vote, find out why they can’t and reestablish them.”
More Alabamians are registered to vote than ever before and more ballots were cast in this year’s gubernatorial primaries than in 2010 contests, but some pockets of the state have seen decreases, including Greene County and 10 others where there are now fewer black registered voters.
That is because of changes in population, not policy, the state’s top election official said.
“There’s no doubt about it that it’s easier for Alabamians to register to vote now than it ever has been in the history of the state,” Secretary of State John Merrill said.
Merrill also points to record turnout in December’s special U.S. Senate race as an indicator of access. But advocates say some Alabamians face new barriers.
“Certainly, through the use of the online voter registration it is easier to register, but when it comes to casting a ballot, there are some additional obstacles,” Benard Simelton, president of the Alabama NAACP, said.
Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said she’s now concerned about technicalities keeping Alabamians from voting. Maybe their polling place changed or they’ve been placed on an inactive voter list.
“They’re registered, they’re ready to vote and they show up on election day and they’re sent away,” she said.
Changes — including the ID law, a decrease in polling places and purging of voter rolls — have been allowed since 2013, when in Shelby County, Ala. v. Holder, the U.S. Supreme Court threw out a portion of the federal voting rights law that required changes in voting procedures in some states and local governments to be approved by the U.S. Department of Justice.
“All of these things would have had to be approved or given greater scrutiny,” Brooks said.
Photo ID law
Alabama’s photo ID law was approved in 2011 when proponents said it was needed to guard against voter fraud.
“A lot of people don’t have IDs and that’s a problem,” French, the Greene County Democrat, said. “A lot of people aren’t inclined to pay $35.”
Besides a state-issued ID, Alabama’s law allows for several other forms, including student or employee IDs from Alabama colleges, military IDs, or any issued from any county, municipality, board or agency in the state.
The Secretary of State’s Office said it would provide free IDs to those who needed them. It’s given out 18,726, the office said this month.
Early this year, a federal judge dismissed a lawsuit that claimed the requirement was intended to be racially discriminatory. But state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, said he thinks it has had an impact on voting in his district.
“There was a widespread feeling that voter ID law was set up to stop black folks from voting or put black folks in jail,” he said.
Four years after the law went into effect, Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said people are still learning about it.
“We’re still seeing people showing up without IDs and the information just isn’t getting to them, so they’re being turned around,” Singleton said.
Alabama is one of 17 states with some sort of photo ID law in effect this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
A year after photo IDs became required, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency said it was closing, due to budget constraints and low usage, 31 driver’s license offices — most of them in rural counties. Public outcry about the impact on rural and minority residents led ALEA to later say most of those offices would remain open one day per month.
In late 2016, the U.S. Department of Transportation said it had reached an agreement “to ensure that driver licensing services in the state will be available to all residents, regardless of race, color or national origin.”
A spokeswoman for ALEA this month said the agency is complying with the USDOT, but she said she could not yet provide information about what access at those offices looks like today.
Polling places closed
There are now 1,996 polling places in Alabama, Merrill said recently. That’s a decrease, but he said he didn’t know how many there were when he took office in 2015. BirminghamWatch has requested lists of polling places this year and in 2010 for comparison.
Closures, Merrill said, reflect population shifts. Decisions are made at the county level, where probate judges oversee elections.
An advocacy group, The Leadership Conference Education Fund, looked at 18 of Alabama’s counties and found that 12 of them had closed 66 polling places between 2013 and 2016.
Simelton said a local branch of the NAACP recently stopped the closure of a precinct in Crenshaw County that would have made some voters travel 40 miles roundtrip.
“With local elections, one or two or three votes can make a difference in the outcome of the election,” he said.
Populations and Political Changes
There are now 3.4 million registered voters in the state, an increase of about 14 percent between January 2013 and January 2018. The number of white voters increased by 13.8 percent during that period; the number of black voters increased by 11 percent.
More people — 874,904 — voted in the June gubernatorial primaries than did in June 2010, when 811,227 ballots were cast. Participation in the Democrats’ primary decreased while GOP ballots increased.
About the decrease of registered voters in some rural counties, Merrill and others said a lack of jobs is causing people to leave.
“When the largest employer in your county is the board of education, that’s a problem,” he said.
The state’s overall population is ticking upward, but 44 of its 67 counties lost residents between 2010 and 2017, according to estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Singleton represents several of the counties where black voter registration declined at least slightly.
“You’re getting a number of people migrating for jobs; there’s no work in the area,” he said.
Simelton said the decrease in Democratic ballots this year could be part of an ongoing loss of blue strongholds in the state. In the Black Belt, he said, there are people voting Republican who 10 or 12 years ago were voting Democrat.
Jimmy Cowan is the Choctaw County Democrats chair, though he plans on vacating the position soon because of “failed leadership” in the party at the state level.
“We need some young blood in the party,” he said.
He said concerns about the voter ID law or access to ballots have been “overblown.”
“If you want to vote in this country, it takes minimal effort,” Cowan said
Merrill is proud of the about 1 million people who have registered to vote since he took office in January 2015. He’s attributed part of the increase to compliance with federal law requiring access to registration when receiving or renewing a driver’s license. Increased online registration has also helped, as has connecting registration with social programs.
“If you go to Medicaid or you go to (the Department of Human Resources), you’re offered the opportunity to register to vote,” Merrill said.
Increased registration doesn’t always equal participation. Twenty-one counties saw fewer votes cast this June compared to 2010, according to data on the secretary of state’s website.
“We had more registered voters, so that’s interesting,” said Kate Terry, chief clerk of the Morgan County Probate Office. “You’d think with more registered voters, you’d have more votes cast.”
Some of the newly registered voters are convicted felons. In 2017, facing a lawsuit, lawmakers and Gov. Kay Ivey clarified state law to say which 46 felony convictions qualify as “acts of moral turpitude,” that would disqualify Alabamians from voting, including murder and rape.
The 1901 Alabama Constitution says people convicted of crimes involving moral turpitude are no longer able to vote, but it doesn’t define the term or list crimes meeting the definition, the Associated Press reported last year.
French, the Greene County Democratic Party chair, said that, previously, anyone with a felony was at risk of losing access to the polls.
The new legal clarification could restore voting rights for tens of thousands of residents, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery.
So far, the SPLC and the Campaign Legal Center have helped 1,104 people with felony convictions either register to vote or begin the process to regain their right. They’ve also trained 1,097 community leaders and activists to register others.
While Alabama has been adding names to its rolls, it’s also shed some.
About 450,000 people have been removed since Merrill took office in 2015 because they moved, died or lost their right to vote through a felony.
Information about what counties those purged names came from could not be provided this month, a spokesman for the secretary of state’s office said.
Additionally, a July study on states’ purge policies by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law was critical of Alabama, saying it violates the National Voter Registration Act by using a database called the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck Program to “immediately purge voters without providing the notice and waiting period required by federal law.”
Merrill said the Brennan Center has a political agenda.
“I don’t care what the Brennan Center thinks about us or what any other group thinks of us,” Merrill said. He cares that every eligible person be able to vote, he said.
State and federal laws are followed in the purge process, he said, adding that the process is a never-ending one. The Crosscheck program is used to identify people who may be registered or voting in multiple states, Merrill said.
“We use it as a tool, not as a mechanism for removing people from the voter rolls,” Merrill said.
In January, 318,739 of the voters on the rolls, almost a tenth of the total, were considered “inactive,” according to the Secretary of State’s Office.
Merrill’s office has said it’s following federal and state laws in updating its rolls with a two-part mailing process to verify or update voters’ registrations. Voters who don’t respond to a second mailer and haven’t participated in recent elections can be removed from the voter rolls.
“Inactive” voters still can cast a ballot on election day by updating their information at that time.
‘Lack of Interest’
The Alabama Voting Rights Project, the joint effort between Southern Poverty Law Center and the Campaign Legal Center, was launched this year to help those with felony convictions regain their voting rights. SPLC has said the state isn’t doing enough to inform or help re-register the potential voters.
Through its effort, SPLC has run into a variety of problems it wouldn’t otherwise know about, Brooks said.
In one county, voter registration forms had an outdated address and were being mailed to a vacant office. It took calls to the Secretary of State’s Office to fix the issue, Brooks said.
Meanwhile, in some counties prison IDs are accepted when registering to vote, but in other counties they’re not. “The secretary of state assures us people can use (prison IDs),” Brooks said. “It underscores a lack of interest in registering people.”
In Georgia, a new “exact match” law requires information on a voter’s registration application to exactly match information on file with Georgia’s driver’s license agency or the Social Security Administration, the Associated Press reported recently. About 53,000 voter registrations have been held up because of the law.
Simelton said the Georgia law is “a perfect example of an individual’s rights being suppressed” and reason to reinstate the Voting Rights Act provisions that were gutted.
Alabama, meanwhile, could make it much easier to vote, said Heather Milam, the Democrat running for secretary of state, said. She’s advocating for early voting and automatic voter registration.
“If we registered everyone in America, but we make it harder to actually go exercise that right, what are we really doing?” Milam said.