By Juan Williams
Alabama’s Republican political leaders last week began slyly backpedalling from their plan to close 31 offices that issue drivers’ licenses in counties with heavily Black, Democratic-leaning populations.
Republican Gov. Robert Bentley said the decision to reopen the offices for one day a month was necessary despite a tight state budget because residents of those districts need the licenses if they are going to drive.
Now that is the definition of political shamelessness.
While feigning concern for the needs of Black people in poor, rural areas, the governor is desperately covering up Alabama’s effort to suppress the Black vote. His sudden empathy was prompted by a national outcry over the shuttered offices as a crude act of oppression in a state with a long history of white segregationist politics. Hillary Clinton called the state’s initial actions a “blast from the Jim Crow past.”
The fallout has prompted critics to sound alarms about the wave of new restrictions on voting across the country. Those new rules clearly depress turnout among minority, young, and elderly voters.
Until now, that tragic impact has been overlooked. Polls show most Americans – including most Black people – support the Republican efforts to fight “voter fraud,” despite a lack of evidence of any such fraud being widespread in Alabama or anywhere else. One study of a billion people who voted from 2000 to 2014 found only 31 cases of voter impersonation.
The claims of voter fraud are themselves political fraud. And the Alabama story has pulled back the curtain to reveal it.
The fact is that Alabama’s Republican legislature voted in 2013 to require photo identification from all people trying to vote. Then they raised the price for applying for a license by 50 percent. And now they’ve closed – for all but for one day a month – the rural Department of Motor Vehicles offices where licenses are issued.
These changes come after 2014 elections in which 20 percent of the state’s registered voters did not have identification that included a photograph. The Boston Globe recently reported: “Alabama in 2014 …had the lowest turnout in an election since 1986. Now Alabama is closing offices where state residents can get a license with a photo ID and doing it almost exclusively in places where Black people live.”
The federal government could not stop these changes because the Supreme Court, in a 2013 ruling on a suit filed by Alabama’s Shelby County, ended federal oversight of changes to any state’s voting practices. In a 5-4 ruling, the court’s conservative majority said the formula for determining which states needed pre-clearance was outdated.
Until Congress acts to revise the so-called “coverage formula,” there is no pre-clearance requirement for any state – even those with a proven history of race-based voting discrimination.
Last week, the governor was dismissive of charges that Alabama is suppressing the state’s minority vote.
“To suggest the closure of the driver’s license offices is a racial issue is simply not true, and to suggest otherwise should be considered an effort to promote a political agenda,” the governor said in a prepared statement.
Why would any cynic think that closing those offices might be politically subterfuge by Republicans?
Well, here’s why.
“Every single county in which Blacks make up more than 75 percent of registered voters will see their driver license office closed. Every one,” claimed John Archibald, who writes for the Alabama Media Group, which includes the Birmingham News.
Archibald concluded that the Republican governor and legislature had committed an “affront to the very notion of justice in a nation where one man one vote is as precious as oxygen.” He wrote that he’d “love to say” that people who see a dangerous, modern-day brew of race and politics “have us all wrong,” but “the numbers say they don’t.”
The lone Democrat in Alabama’s congressional delegation, Rep. Terri Sewell, is another voice raised to assert that this is voter disenfranchisement.
In a state where a quarter of the population is Black, Sewell is the only Democrat in Congress. The state legislature’s GOP majority gerrymandered the state’s congressional districts so that six of the seven are represented by Republicans, and Blacks are concentrated and isolated in Sewell’s district.
She was reelected last year with 98.37 percent of the vote while white Republicans enjoy safe and heavily white, Republican districts in the rest of the state.
Sewell recently asked the Justice Department for an investigation into whether Alabama is violating existing federal election laws by limiting Black citizens’ access to identification while raising the standards for voter ID.
Sewell also points out that no Republican is supporting the Voting Rights Advancement Act of 2015 which reinstates federal clearance for changes that impact voting in 13 states with past instances of proven voter discrimination, including Alabama.
“We have over 106 sponsors, and we’re looking for our first Republican,” Sewell told U.S. News & World Report.
An earlier legislative effort, the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014, would have reinstated pre-clearance for only four states, not including Alabama. That bill had 12 Republican supporters, including Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), the influential former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, but the Republican House leadership somehow never scheduled a vote.
As the author of several books on civil rights history, and decades spent covering Washington politics, I am reluctant to assign blame for playing racial politics. Republicans and Democrats, Black and white, play the sad game.
But the crass effort at suppressing the Black vote ahead of the 2016 presidential race is a tragic, bright stain on the Party of Lincoln.
This editorial appeared in The Hill.
Juan Williams is an author and political analyst for Fox News Channel.