On March 7, 1965, voting rights advocates marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. At the foot of the bridge, they were met with state-sponsored violence. Alabama state troopers ruthlessly attacked the foot soldiers with batons, tear gas, and rubber tubing wrapped in barbed wire. On a day that would become known as “Bloody Sunday,” hundreds of protesters were beaten, bruised, and bloodied for demanding a right foundational to American democracy.
Even after these advocates helped secure the passage of the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965, Alabama has continued to relentlessly target voters of color with suppressive policies. In fact, Alabama voters are encountering these same challenges — and more — today. As a result, it is more important than ever that voters fight against these threats throughout Alabama’s 2022 election cycle and beyond. We must ensure that every person who wants to make their voice heard at the ballot box has that opportunity — and that we also uphold the unbroken tradition of fighting for the right to vote, even amid unyielding threats.
Some potential challenges Alabama voters may encounter are highlighted below. Critically, they’re also accompanied by insights — bolstered by other voters’ experiences — into how you can tackle these challenges and ensure your rights are protected.
In the 1960s, voter intimidation targeting Black Alabamians was very common — and many Black registered voters endured harassment after their names were provided to the local citizens’ council or the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Although hooded Klansmen no longer appear at Alabama polls, recent heightened police presence at these locations, which LDF observed firsthand during the 2020 elections, undoubtedly serves as an effective form of intimidation for some voters. Given the state’s history of discriminatory policing, it is unsurprising that people of color, who are often targets of racial profiling and police misconduct, may experience fears when they encounter police at polling locations.
In fact, one of LDF’s own non-partisan poll monitors in Alabama experienced a harrowing intimidation incident on Election Day in 2020. Vivianna Rodriguez, a volunteer from Autauga County, was harassed, told to leave the polling location, subsequently followed, pulled over, and then detained by a state sheriff.
“I was serving as a volunteer poll monitor on Election Day … and was detained by a sheriff’s deputy in Marbury, Alabama. I introduced myself as a [nonpartisan] poll monitor and was wearing a bright green shirt that identified me … The poll official said that what I was doing was illegal and insisted that I could not be there,” Rodriguez described in LDF’s post-election Democracy Defended report. “To not cause conflict, I decided to leave the polling location. As I was driving away, I noticed the sheriff’s car from the precinct behind me. [I pulled over and] the sheriff’s deputy walked up to my car and said that I was ‘harassing’ voters. He threatened me with arrest and prosecution for ‘disturbing the peace.’”
In a follow-up interview with LDF, Rodriguez describes the aggressive manner in which one of the three officers on the scene interacted with her. “As the LDF attorneys [who Rodriguez called for support] were introducing themselves … the sheriff’s officer basically swatted at my hand to try to grab my phone. As he did that, I stepped back and … he leaned and lunged toward me as if he was going to come for me.” She added that the officer then said that he “didn’t want anybody [on the phone] interrupting the conversation we were having and that I basically would be arrested if I go back to that polling station.”
Rodriguez was eventually released with a warning, though the entire incident was extremely distressing. “My heart was basically bumping out of my chest. I cried. I cried all the way back from that place to my house … I was scared,” she tells LDF. “I was a woman of color facing three, Caucasian, big men accusing me of harassing voters and I knew that I had a right to be there [as a non-partisan poll monitor]. I knew the rules, I knew what I had to do … I just couldn’t believe that I was being treated this way.”
After LDF and Southern Poverty Law Center attorneys contacted several government offices in Alabama, Rodriguez received an apology from the sheriff’s office, who ensured her they would no longer interfere in non-partisan poll monitoring activities.
It is critical to ensure that Alabama voters and poll monitors like Rodriguez do not experience intimidation in exercising their right to vote in upcoming elections. First, advocates and policymakers must play an important role in combatting voter intimidation. For example, before the 2020 general election, LDF sent advocacy letters to Alabama’s attorney general and Alabama probate judges reminding them that voter intimidation is a crime under Alabama law. Moreover, to help counter intimidation, the state should provide trainings and other resources to ensure that relevant officials, including poll workers, know what constitutes voter intimidation, who is allowed at polling locations, and how to respond to intimidation incidents.
Alabama voters can also directly monitor and combat voter intimidation tactics. As Rodriguez tells LDF, “Know your rights and don’t back down. Stand up for what you believe in. Even if it is feeling like you’re facing three Goliaths.” Indeed, there are multiple ways you can protect your rights and those of other voters. You can use this American Civil Liberties Union resource to learn about what constitutes voter intimidation and, if you notice it happening at your polling location on Election Day, call the Election Protection Hotline at 1-866-OUR-VOTE.
In 2010, Shelby County, Alabama filed a lawsuit in federal court asking the court to declare Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act (VRA) unconstitutional. Section 5 ensured that states and localities with a history of voter discrimination received permission before enacting new voting laws through a process known as preclearance. In 2013, Shelby County won its lawsuit in a devastating Supreme Court decision that significantly weakened critical VRA provisions, including preclearance. Less than 24 hours after the decision, Alabama began to impose voting barriers that disproportionately impacted Black people. Specifically, the state implemented new photo ID requirements and simultaneously closed motor vehicle offices.
A driver’s license or other state ID is the most common form of American identification, and individuals can acquire them at motor vehicle offices. After announcing the new photo ID voter requirement, Alabama’s governor closed over 30 motor vehicle offices. These closures have deeply impacted voters of color. In fact, 73% of majority-minority counties experienced a motor vehicle office closure, as opposed to only 41% of majority-white counties. And, in 2017, researchers found that over 100,000 registered Alabama voters, who were mostly poor, Black, and Latino, could not cast a ballot because they did not have the photo ID required by the state. Though some motor vehicle offices have since re-opened, voters of color are still consistently disenfranchised by Alabama’s photo ID requirement.
However, Alabama voters can thwart these suppressive tactics through preparation and education. If you do not already have a qualifying photo ID and your local DMV is not a viable option, you can obtain a free ID card at limited locations. You can also reach out to the Alabama Voting Rights Coalition if you are having trouble securing a qualifying photo ID prior to an election. Finally, you can learn more about what types of IDs are accepted at polling places and share this information with your friends, family, and fellow community members to ensure that everyone is prepared to vote.
During the 1901 Alabama Constitutional Convention, the framers sought to establish and maintain white supremacy, including through the voting process. As a result, they created a state constitution that mandated that Alabamians would lose their right to vote if convicted of a crime “involving moral turpitude.” They intentionally left the definition of moral turpitude vague and included a variety of convictions that qualified. However, in 2017, the governor of Alabama signed legislation defining moral turpitude and restoring voting rights to thousands of Alabamians convicted of felonies. One avenue individuals can now use to restore their right to vote is through acquiring a Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote (CERV). However, this process is cumbersome and unknown to many residents — and leaves out hundreds of thousands of people.
Ronald McKeithen, a formerly incarcerated individual who had his right to vote restored after acquiring a CERV, told the Alabama Voting Rights Coalition in a recent interview he never expected he would be able to vote again. “I did 37 years [in prison]. I wasn’t allowed to vote. In fact, my voting rights were taken from me when I got my first felony case. But, while in prison, I had the opportunity to sit down and be still and just pay attention to what was going on with politics. [However], the thought of being able to vote never crossed my mind, because I knew I lost that,” McKeithen said.
“We would have all kind of political conversations, but it never came to us [incarcerated individuals] being able to vote,” he added. “I always thought that I would have to get out and encourage others to do it, because they still had the power to do it … I knew that I wanted to be a part of the change, but [for almost 40 years] I wasn’t able to vote.”
However, after his release, McKeithen found out about the CERV process, and, much to his surprise and delight, he became a registered voter. “I was shocked when [I found out] I was able to get my voting rights back. When I went to get my [voter registration] card and to hold it up and get a picture … it made me feel real great to stand in front of City Hall … It was like becoming a citizen again,” McKeithen described. “When you’re a Black, ex-con with a record, you don’t really feel like a citizen … you have to struggle more just to survive. To get my voting rights back, I feel like I’m back. That I have been properly re-introduced to society and now I have a voice to where I can make decisions and be an example for others.”
Public awareness is critical to ensuring that more qualified Alabamians like McKeithen can have their vote restored. To raise further awareness about this important issue, you can learn more about going through the CERV process — and share this information with your networks. You can also follow the Alabama Voting Rights Coalition on social media to find out more information about voter restoration and spread the word to help ensure that Alabama’s voter restoration process becomes common knowledge.
Moreover, an initiative called Return My Vote, a joint effort between Greater Birmingham Ministries (GBM) and Dr. Richard Fording of the University of Alabama, offers direct support for Alabamians seeking to restore their right to vote. Dori Miles, a GBM voting rights restoration volunteer, said in a May 16 press release that “… 300,000 Alabamians [were] impacted by the 2017 changes to Alabama law that greatly increased the number of people with felony convictions eligible to vote … [and these] citizens with felony convictions navigate a complex set of rules and conditions” when seeking to restore their rights. Miles emphasized that Return My Vote is a “virtual voting rights website where any Alabama citizen can have their questions answered about their eligibility to vote, receive assistance with registering to vote or getting their voting rights back if they’ve been taken away due to a felony conviction.” In a few quick clicks on the website, individuals can easily request a live voting rights consultation or an email/text consultation.
For hundreds of years, the state of Alabama, its constitution, and its elected officials have deterred access to the ballot box for Black residents and other residents of color as a means of upholding white supremacy. While this voter suppression continuum has gone unbroken, advocates, protestors, and fighters have simultaneously shown up without fail to ensure that every qualified voter can cast their ballot and vote. Therefore, if you are an eligible Alabama voter, be sure to make a plan to vote and make your voice heard — in this year’s elections and all future elections.