Friday, October 2, 2015

Race, Poverty, and Voter Identification in Alabama

I commented previously on how the right to vote remains in what President Obama called "the long shadow of racism." Mr. Obama juxtaposed the modern challenges of voting with concerns about the larger problems of structural racism that plague poor African Americans. It is a concern about the precarity of those who may suffer harm to their rights because of structural shifts. To be concerned about this is to be concerned with how

structural inequality pervades the American political structure at its most basic levels. It is also to imply that we cannot see voting in isolation from police violence, economic oppression, or racial domination.  [T]he juxtaposition of race, democracy, mass incarceration, and poverty is to imply the need for a dialogue about structural racism that will ultimately spur legal reform.

Recent events in Alabama underscore this concern. On Wednesday, reported that the State of Alabama would be closing 31 driver part-time driver's license offices located in rural areas of the state.  This was done to close an $11 million cut in the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency's budget.  This is part of a larger set of cutbacks in governmental services due to budget constraints. 

John Merrill, Alabama's Secretary of State (and Chief Elections Official) said the closings would not affect access to identification cards necessary for voting, under Alabama's voter ID law.  Mr. Merrill stated that each county's Board of Registrars could issue appropriate identification.

Despite Mr. Merrill's assurances, commentators and civil rights activists nonetheless complained about the risk to the voting rights for rural black Alabama residents.  Susan Watson, Executive Director of the Alabama ACLU said that "people are right to be worried" about the closures.  "It's going to have a huge impact on the ability of people to get a state-issued I.D." Political commentator Kyle Whitmire argued that the closings would necessarily narrow access to the necessary credential of a driver's license (or other ID), and thus created the "certainty" of a "civil rights lawsuit."

Depending on which counties you count as being in Alabama's Black Belt, either twelve or fifteen Black Belt counties soon won't have a place to get a driver's license. Counties where some of the state's poorest live. Counties that are majority African-American.  Combine that with the federally mandated Star ID taking effect next year, and we're looking at a nightmare. Or a trial lawyer's dream.

If the closures are part of a coordinated strategy to disenfranchise, it would represent voter suppression of the worse kind (though the evidence of this would be highly unlikely to find).  A suit under the Voting Rights Act would be apt.

But even if the State of Alabama is taken at its word, and the cuts in providing drivers licenses is not an effort to disenfranchise African Americans in Alabama, the structures of historic, racially disparate poverty have coincided with the need for austerity that the state claims, putting at risk the right to vote for those poor black Alabamians who are at the intersection of race and class.  Mr. Whitmire's disparate impact argument could be pursued under Section 2, which would force Alabama--if it is found liable--to rethink this approach to solving its austerity problem.  Yet, without Section 5 preclearance, the alleged harm done would continue until a judicial finding.  

This serves as a reminder that Voting Rights Act as it currently stands is under-equipped to address this kind of structural voter discrimination. Moreover, whether this is intentional or incidental, the situation illustrates how the right to vote is precarious for those who suffer subordination based on race and class.

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