Justice Department Called On To Investigate Alabama Voter ID Issue
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Voting rights activists are protesting what they say is voter suppression in Alabama. The state suddenly closed 31 part-time driver's license offices last week due to budget cuts. That leaves many rural residents without a place to obtain new driver's licenses, licenses that also double as IDs for voting. From member station WBHM, Andrew Yeager reports.
ANDREW YEAGER, BYLINE: Amanda Taylor has a 17-year-old daughter who doesn't have her license yet. It used to be, she could get that new license in Lowndes County where they live, but after the office closures, the family will have to take an 80-mile round trip to Montgomery.
AMANDA TAYLOR: I just hate thinking about it, you know, the idea of having to have to go to Montgomery. It's - God, it's going to be so many people.
YEAGER: Taylor anticipates taking her daughter out of school and taking time off of work to do it. She says not everyone around her can afford to take off work or pay for transportation to get there. Lowndes County is rural, poor, largely African-American and particularly hard-hit by these closures. Wrapped up in this issue, is voting. Alabama lawmakers passed a strict voter ID law in 2011 which took effect last year. It requires a state or federally-issued photo ID to vote. The most common one is a driver's license. Critics of the closures say taking away 31 places where you could get an ID will keep people from voting.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We're not going to take this anymore.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We won't take it no more.
YEAGER: At a press conference in Birmingham, the Reverend Jesse Jackson isn't shy about what he thinks of the state's move.
JESSE JACKSON: Of course it's a new Jim Crow.
YEAGER: Jim Crow - he's referring to the system of segregation laws once common across the South. He called on state leaders to reopen the driver's license offices and echoed a call from Alabama's only black representative, Terri Sewell, for the Justice Department to investigate how the closures could affect access to the polls.
JACKSON: It's really another impediment to make voting more difficult.
ALABAMA SEC OF STATE JOHN MERRILL: The thing that we have to understand is that we're not making it more difficult to vote. We're making it more difficult to drive.
YEAGER: Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill is the state's top election official. He says residents without a valid ID for voting can get a free one at every County board of registrars. He says the state has a mobile unit driving county to county to offer voter IDs. Merrill says they've been getting the word out.
MERRILL: This has not changed anything that we're doing or the way that we're doing it because we already had the most aggressive, assertive photo ID voter registration effort in the history of the state.
YEAGER: Alabama's governor says the call for a federal investigation is ill-informed. He says the closures are not about keeping black people from voting, they're a business decision to deal with budget cuts. Raymond Johnson teaches at Stanford University's law school about the Federal Voting Rights Act, which is intended to make sure voters aren't discriminated against by race. Johnson says if the Justice Department does investigate, he believes under that law, Alabama wouldn't pass muster.
RAYMOND JOHNSON: I think they're going to find that this is going to have a disproportionate impact upon minority voters in particular, as well as the poor.
YEAGER: He says if the Justice Department determined Alabama violated the law, the state would have to address it. Lowndes County resident Amanda Taylor does think the office closures will discourage people from voting, but not the passion to vote.
TAYLOR: I tell my daughter, you know, don't let that keep you from voting. People are going to have to just get out and just get it done.
YEAGER: The question is whether these rural residents now face an undue burden in order to exercise their right to vote. For NPR News, I'm Andrew Yeager. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.