There Are Huge Obstacles To Casting A Ballot In Alabama's Special Election

Advocates are worried the state's voter ID law, and confusion over another law, will suppress voter turnout.

The last-minute push to focus on voter turnout in the Alabama special election for a U.S. Senate seat has brought the state’s restrictive voting policies into renewed focus, prompting concern that many eligible voters who wish to cast a vote on Tuesday will not be able to.

Democrats have focused on mobilizing black voters in the state, a constituency they believe they need if Democrat Doug Jones is going to pull off an upset victory over Roy Moore, his Republican opponent. But voting advocates in the state worry that voters of color, along with the poor and the elderly, may face disproportionate obstacles to casting a ballot.

One of those hurdles, advocates say, is the state’s voter ID law. Passed in 2011 and in effect since 2014, the law requires Alabama voters to show one of 10 acceptable forms of identification when they vote.

The state offers free IDs to anyone who needs one, but civil rights groups say the law discriminates against people of color, the poor and the elderly, who are less likely to have an acceptable form of ID. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund sued the state over the law in 2015.

Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones waves to reporters as he leaves a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, Dec. 11, 2017.
Democratic Senate candidate Doug Jones waves to reporters as he leaves a restaurant in Birmingham, Alabama, Dec. 11, 2017.
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

Deuel Ross, an NAACP LDF lawyer involved in the voter ID suit, said his organization estimates black voters in Alabama are twice as likely to lack an acceptable form of ID as their white counterparts. In total, Ross said, the group estimates 118,000 people in Alabama don’t have an acceptable form of ID to be able to vote.

“We think there are going to be a group of people who either will show up to the polls and not be able to vote, or who will not turn out because they don’t have the right ID that’s needed in order to vote,” he said.

It’s difficult to gauge the impact of voter ID measures on turnout, because people have any number of reasons for not making it to the polls. One study in Wisconsin earlier this year, however, estimated that more than 20,000 people in the state’s two largest counties didn’t vote because of the state’s voter ID law.

Alabama offers free voter IDs to people who need them, but discrimination can still persist. To get a free voter ID in Alabama, eligible voters have to present legal documentation like a birth certificate, marriage record or Social Security document. Getting those documents can be difficult, both financially and logistically.

“It is very complicated, it’s very time-consuming,” said Kathleen Unger, the president and CEO of VoteRiders, a group that assists people in getting the ID they need to vote. Unger’s group has been active ahead of the Alabama election. “Obviously these are people who don’t have a current driver’s license in their state, so getting around is a big issue. And it’s expensive.”

As of Monday morning, a link on the Alabama secretary of state’s website, directing voters to places where they could get a free ID, led to a blank page. Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) told HuffPost on Monday that was because his office has completed all of its free voter ID drives for the year, but Alabamians can get a free ID from the local registrar’s office any day of the year. The link on the secretary’s website was updated later that day.

“The lack of information, the lack of clear information, frankly, at times in certain states, the lack of correct information or internally consistent information online, it’s a big problem,” Unger said. “Sadly I am not surprised.”

Merrill denies there are suppressive laws in place in Alabama, and said his office has set a record number of voter registrations.

“I have one goal. And it’s been stated hundreds and hundreds of times when it comes to voter registration,” he said. “I want to ensure that each and every eligible U.S. citizen that’s a resident of Alabama is registered to vote and has a photo ID.”

“If you’re eligible, then all you have to do is take the application and you’re going to be eligible to vote,” he went on. “That’s it. If you’re not eligible, and you make the application, then we’ll notify you and tell you why it was denied. There’s no question about it. It’s never been easier in our state to register to vote.”

After implementing the voter ID law, Alabama officials closed 31 Department of Motor Vehicles locations in mostly black areas, where people would have been able to get the kinds of ID needed to vote. The Department of Transportation investigated the closures to assess whether they violated the 1964 Civil Rights Act by intentionally targeting black Alabamians. DOT eventually reached a settlement with the state to add 2,000 hours of operation to the DMVs in the affected counties.

The state has also closed polling places. One analysis found that Alabama has seen a 7 percent decrease in its number of polling places from 2012 to 2016 ― a period during which its population grew by 2 percent.

Voting advocates argue the state isn’t doing enough to clear up confusion about what kinds of crime result in losing the right to vote. Until May, Alabama stripped voting rights from anyone who had committed a “felony of moral turpitude,” but it was never specified exactly what crimes were disqualifying. The law had roots in a Jim Crow measure deliberately designed to suppress the black vote, and the ambiguity gave local election officials wide discretion to tell people they were ineligible.

Facing a lawsuit over the law, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed legislation in May that laid out about 50 crimes that would disqualify someone from the right to vote. The new law raised confusion among many people who’d previously been told they couldn’t vote, and people who hadn’t heard about the change. Merrill told HuffPost in June that his office didn’t have an obligation to invest in education efforts about changes to the new law, which the Southern Poverty Law Center has estimated could affect thousands.

Merrill’s office sent out a press release about the new law in August. John Bennett, a Merrill spokesman, told Mother Jones his office worked with state prisons to put up posters encouraging people to apply to restore their voting rights, with a list of the disqualifying felonies. Merrill also told ThinkProgress that his office told wardens and sheriffs to get absentee ballots to incarcerated people who hadn’t lost the right to vote.

Advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, Legal Services Alabama and the Campaign Legal Center have held clinics over the past few months to educate people about the law. Moore took notice and accused the groups of trying to swing the election for Jones. The people the groups are assisting are eligible voters.

Blair Bowie, a fellow at the Campaign Legal Center, spent the week ahead of the registration deadline for Tuesday’s election educating people about the new law through clinics and workshops. Bowie said she met people who had received mailers from the state telling them they were ineligible to vote because of a past conviction, even though they were in fact eligible. The Alabama voter registration form requires applicants to swear under penalty of perjury that they are a qualified voter, but it does not include a list of crimes that are disqualifying.

“The state has not taken any action to correct the misinformation that it has spread,” Bowie wrote in a blog post at the CLC.

Merrill dismissed concerns that his office hasn’t done enough to clarify the new law. He said the idea that people would be scared away from filling out voter applications is a “well-laid excuse by liberal minions from around the world.”

“We know that everybody knows that there’s an election, so the people that want to participate are gonna participate,” he said. “I doubt very seriously there’s a single person that’s unaware that there’s an election tomorrow... If that person is not registered in the election tomorrow and they want to be registered to vote, all they need to do is fill out the application electronically.”

That application is available online, but it notes that it is already too late to register to vote in Tuesday’s election.

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