Some Alabama Voters Anxious Ahead of the Midterms

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Hundreds of thousands of voters have been dropped from Alabama’s active voter rolls. And in recent years, dozens of polling places have closed. In some cases those closings have disproportionately affected African Americans. As a result, many voters here are anxious about Tuesday’s elections.

Sylvia McClain, 66, has voted at the Hilldale Church in Pinson for at least 10 years. But a few elections ago, she showed up at her polling place and no one was there.

“There weren’t any signs or anything there and I knocked on the door and nobody answered. I didn’t know what to do,” she says.

Then the run around began. McClain left the Hilldale Church, went home to regroup and decided to go to the Rock School Center, another polling place near her house. That’s where she found out her voting station changed to Jefferson State Community College“I went over to Jeff State and then I was told I had been eliminated from the roll because of nonvoting,” McClain says.

She was baffled. She’d only missed one election in recent years. But after a lengthy conversation with a poll worker, she filled out a couple forms, and was reinstated on site. McClain’s situation isn’t unique. Just last week, election officials in Madison County held a press conference to  call attention to voter suppression after some students at the county’s two mostly-black colleges discovered they were placed on the inactive voter rolls.

Peter Joffrion, a Democratic candidate for Alabama’s 5th congressional district and former Huntsville city attorney, called for the students to be reinstated to the active voter list.

People are knocked off the rolls if a postcard from the secretary of state’s office containing voter info bounces back to the post office twice. Groups like the ACLU and the NAACP  have argued these practices disproportionately affect marginalized groups. A 2013 U.S. Supreme Court decision invalidated the part of the Voting Rights Act that required jurisdictions to get federal clearance before passing any new voting laws. Since then, the state passed strict voting regulations and many polling places have closed.

Jenny Carroll heads the Alabama state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. She says, “they tend to be in the Black Belt of Alabama. They tend to be minorities and they tend to be among the voting populations that traditionally were disenfranchised under those hard-voting suppression regulations that were put in place in Alabama.”

Part of Carroll’s job is to report to Congress problems with voting access across the state. What she’s found, she says, is that voter intimidation has taken more subtle forms, particularly with Alabama’s recent series of voting laws. “And among the most serious regulation that Alabama passed was the voter I.D. requirement which requires voters to have a state issued I.D. and the state articulated which I.D. would be acceptable,” she says. Acceptable forms of identification include a driver’s license or a valid U.S. passport. The state can also provide registered voters a free photo voter I.D.

Secretary of State John Merrill says he’s expanded access to voting, noting that Alabama has a record 3.4 million voters. He also says new software will expedite the voting process. “One of the things that we’ve done to make it easier for our people to participate is to introduce the electronic poll books which reduces the wait time some 60 to 75 percent,” he says.

These electronic poll books replace the paper lists election officials use to look up a voter’s information. But how accurate is that information? Last week, Merrill announced more than 600,000 voters have been purged from the rolls since he’s been in office. He says those are people who have either died, moved to another state or are convicted felons.

But many people, like the Pinson voter McClain, have said they were wrongly moved to the inactive rolls. McClain says she’s looking forward to voting in this election, but she worries she’ll be hit with the double whammy of a closed polling place and having to prove her eligibility yet again. “I’m waiting until November 6th and I am still on the roll, and I’ll get to vote,” McClain says.

Carroll, who heads the committee documenting problems with voter access, says not everyone has the time or the patience to be as persistent as McClain was. The secretary of state encourages people to check their registration status online at before heading to the polls. Voting rights advocates say it’s one of many hurdles that make voting tougher than it should be.

This guide from our partners at Birmingham Watch helps steer voters in the right direction should they encounter issues at the polls.


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