As voters head to the polls for today’s primary election, it’s the first time people in Alabama will be required to show a photo ID to cast a ballot.
Critics say the new law is a roadblock for the poor and minorities. It’s a particularly hot issue in Alabama’s Black Belt, where African-Americans during the civil rights era were met with violence when trying to vote.
Supporters of the law say a photo ID will cut down on voter fraud. But as Ashley Cleek reports, the new law might not stop the type of fraud some say is rampant in the region.
Charles Martindale sits in front of a computer in Hayneville, Lowndes County’s sleepy seat. An older woman sits in front of a blue drop cloth, like at the DMV, as Martindale snaps her photo.
Martindale has been the chairman of the Lowndes County Board of Registrars for almost a decade. And now he’s in charge of taking pictures for voter IDs.
“For voting purposes only, photo identification card,” Martindale explains, “But you can use that at the polls or on an absentee ballot.” The woman laughs at her picture and thanks him.
The process is quick, and the ID is free. So far, Alabama has issued more than 2,300 photo voter IDs.
Lowndes County has over 10,000 registered voters, but Martindale says he’s only processed about 60 new photo IDs, far less than he expected.
Alabama and thirty other states now require some form of photo ID in order to vote.
There are no numbers on how many people don’t have a photo ID in Alabama. But a study by the Pew Research Center says around 34 million Americans have no form of photo ID.
According to Senator Hank Sanders, who has represented the Black Belt for over 30 years, many people in Alabama fall into that category.
“This is designed to keep poor folks from voting, to limit black people from voting, young people from voting, older people, people in the rural areas, and women,” Sanders explains. “These are considered Democratic constituencies.”
The argument for the new laws is that photo IDs prevent voter fraud and make elections more fair.
“We are hoping there won’t be as much fraud,” says Perry Beasley. He’s part of the Democracy Defense League, a Black Belt civic group that lobbied for the law. “We have had it up to our eyeballs in voter fraud and we ready for it to go away.”
In person voter fraud is rare. In Alabama, only one person has been convicted since 2000.
Michael Jackson, District Attorney for five counties in the Black Belt, explains that no one is going to go to the polls with someone else’s ID and try to vote. “It’s such a small area,” Jackson jokes. “Every one knows each other.”
But Jackson, Beasley, and others agree there is fraud in Alabama – absentee voter fraud.
“People vote in thousands of absentee ballots in these tiny counties,” Jackson says.
A quick explainer. An absentee ballot is a ballot that someone would file if they were not going to be able to vote on election day. Like if they are physically disabled or will be out of the county.
For decades, counties across the Black Belt have had high numbers of absentee ballots each election.
“If you want to win you gotta get them in Lowndes County,” explains John Hulett, the Probate Judge of Lowndes County. Hulett’s a big name in Lowndes. His dad was a civil rights leader and the first African American sheriff.
“We had an election in 1966, I was 14 years old,” Hulett remembers. “I will never forget, first time we had blacks to run for office. We got through with the polls. We thought we had won, and then they said, ‘We have to count the absentee.’ And we said, ‘What is that?’ So all our candidates lost. And once we learned how to play the game, so we started to do the same thing.”
Hulett explains that the system works like a stock market.
There are brokers who canvass neighborhoods, helping people apply for and fill out their absentee ballots. They are employed by candidates or political parties. Sometimes unmarked absentee ballots are sold to the candidate who bids the highest. Hulett says he has never paid for votes.
So, the new law is supposed to stop fraud by requiring people to provide photo ID at the polls and with absentees. But there are loopholes.
For one, if two people vouch for a voter at the polls, then they do not need ID.
Two, while voters are supposed to submit a copy of a photo ID with an absentee ballot, there are ways around that too.
Hulett gets up and goes over to get a new absentee ballot.
“I wanna show you this,” he says, placing the ballot on his desk. “It says everyone has to have ID right? See right here?” In the center, there is a list with small white check boxes to the side.
If you check that you either have disability that prevents you from going to the polls or are over 65, you don’t have to show ID.
“Then all you have to do is send [the absentee ballot] in,” Hulett smiles.
Overall, DA Michael Jackson is on the fence about the new voter ID law.
“It’s very complicated,” Jackson sighs. “I don’t like roadblocks to legitimate voting. And photo voter ID can be a roadblock. One the other hand, I like fair elections.”
For this election, absentee ballots are down in Lowndes County, a measly 300 or so. It could be thanks to the new law. Or, it could be because it’s hard to get voters excited about primaries.
Jackson believes it’s because people haven’t yet figured out how to game the new absentee ballot system. But, he says, at some point, people will.