Shelby First Anniversary Countdown Day 20

Countdown Day 20:

Since the Supreme Court’s opinion in Shelby County, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund has been tracking all the instances in which state and local jurisdictions have attempted to implement discriminatory voting changes.  Of course, without the preclearance mechanism applying in covered jurisdictions, these changes can be implemented without being reviewed first to ensure they are not discriminatory.  Alabama’s announcement of a rule requiring voters to have poll officials “vouch” for them before they vote if they do not have a photo ID is one such instances.  Here is LDF attorney, Deuel Ross, writing about the practice in the Birmingham News:     

Alabama’s voter ID law disenfranchises some minorities: Call for Sec of State Jim Bennett to relax interpretation of ‘safety valve’ provision

Deuel Ross is a Fried Frank Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a separate entity from the NAACP. 

Tuesday’s news about Alabama’s primary voting brought unfortunately familiar stories of voter disenfranchisement. According to MSNBC, 93-year-old Willie Mims, who is African American, was turned away from his polling place in Escambia County because he does not have a driver’s license or any other form of identification. He should have been allowed to cast a provisional ballot, as required by law, but for reasons that are unclear, he was not offered that option.

Another way that Mr. Mims might have been allowed to vote is if there had been two poll workers present who could have “positively identified” him, under a “safety valve” provision to Alabama’s photo ID law. But Secretary of State Jim Bennett insists on a stingy interpretation of this provision. His office’s proposed rules would allow poll workers to “vouch” only for people with whom they are “personally acquainted.” Since Mr. Mims left the polling place without even being offered a provisional ballot, it is a pretty safe bet that he was not personally acquainted with any of the poll workers. In fact, a great-grandmother in Huntsville who tried to vote with an expired driver’s license also was turned away because only one poll worker was acquainted with her.

Rather than giving voters more opportunities to exercise their right to vote, Mr. Bennett’s proposed rules construe the photo ID law’s safety valve provision in a way that reinstates the voucher test – a relic of the Jim Crow south. During that era, many Alabama election laws also permitted election officials to vouch only for their friends and acquaintances, often meaning that only African Americans —who were unlikely to be closely acquainted with white officials — were required to complete the infamous literacy tests or pay onerous poll taxes. Because of this long history of disfranchisement and racial discrimination in Alabama and elsewhere, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 now permanently and explicitly prohibits the use of such voucher tests.

Thankfully, much has changed in Alabama since the 1960s. Yet, even today, giving election officials the arbitrary power to waive photo ID requirements only for their acquaintances can have discriminatory results. A recent Reuters poll shows that 71 percent of white people in Alabama have less than five acquaintances of a different race, with 37 percent of whites having no friends of a different race. This sad reality means that many white poll workers of goodwill are likely unable to vouch for the disproportionate numbers of people of color without photo IDs.  

Some commenters on have wondered why people don’t just go out and get photo IDs. Unfortunately it’s not that simple. Despite the much-publicized efforts of Mr. Bennett to make photo ID cards more widely available, only about 2,300 cards have been issued to the as many as 500,000 registered voters in Alabama who need them. As the experience of the 94-year old mother of one commenter demonstrates, even a voter who wants to get a “free” photo ID card is often hampered by long waits, malfunctioning computers, and the limited days and hours during which county offices and mobile units are available to issue the cards. These realities can cause substantial hurdles for people who work blue collar and hourly wage jobs, the elderly, and people who lack access to a vehicle or reliable forms of public transportation.  

Anticipating the significant burdens that such voters would face on Primary Day, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund flagged these issues in a March 3, 2014, letter sent to Mr. Bennett on behalf of 10 Alabama organizations, including the Alabama Lawyers Association, the Alabama NAACP, and Greater Birmingham Ministries. We asked Mr. Bennett to clarify the process for implementing the safety valve provision and to adopt a reasonable and objective procedure that would allow people without photo ID to vote. Inexplicably, however, Mr. Bennett stuck by a narrow reading of the provision, which we criticized further in comments on the proposed rules sent to his office on May 29. It now appears that, like Mr. Mims, hundreds of thousands of voters could be disfranchised by the Secretary of State’s narrow reading of the provision.

Regardless of one’s feelings about the merits of photo ID laws, every Alabama voter and reader should urge the Secretary of State to interpret the photo ID law so that more, not fewer people are allowed to vote. Indeed, both South Carolina’s and Louisiana’s photo ID laws contain similar safety valve provisions that are generously interpreted by officials in those states to allow people without photo ID to vote by signing an affidavit or showing a non-photo ID.  

We invite all Alabamians to join us in contacting Mr. Bennett and Jean Brown, his chief legal adviser, and calling on them to act quickly to address these important concerns before the November elections.

Deuel Ross is a Fried Frank Fellow at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, a separate entity from the NAACP.