Five years after the Supreme Court invalidated the Voting Rights Act’s requirement that certain states get federal approval to change their election laws, there are few places where the results are clearer than in Alabama, where the lawsuit began.
Alabama has enacted a slew of restrictive laws and policies, many of which disproportionately affect African-Americans, Latinos and other marginalized groups. In this, it stands out only in degree, not in kind: All over the country, state legislators are making it harder to vote. State officials say the voting measures are intended to prevent election fraud.
Here is the landscape of voting rights five years after the lawsuit, Shelby County v. Holder, through the lens of the state that started it.
Within 24 hours of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Alabama announced that in 2014, it would start requiring photo identification to vote under a law passed in 2011 but stymied by the Voting Rights Act. The number of states with similar laws has since ballooned.
Unlike some other states, Alabama accepts student, tribal and some employee identification, which minority voters are disproportionately likely to rely on. It also offers free photo identification to people who don’t have any. A district court judge noted this in upholding the measure in January, concluding, “It is so easy to get a photo ID in Alabama, no one is prevented from voting.”
Experts found, however, that among registered Alabama voters, blacks and Hispanics were more likely than whites to lack photo identification. An appeal of the district court ruling is in progress, but the law remains in effect.
Secretary of State John Merrill said in an interview on Wednesday that this and other laws had not suppressed the vote in Alabama. He said that more than a million new voters had registered since he took office in 2015, and that a record 2.14 million Alabamians participated in the 2016 election — though as a percentage of registered voters, turnout was slightly lower in 2016 than in 2012.
“Clearly, people are entitled to their own opinion, but they’re not entitled to their own facts,” Mr. Merrill said. “We’ve broken every record in the history of the state for participation. It’s clear what has occurred.”
The year after the photo identification law took effect, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced that it would close 31 driver’s license offices, one of the primary places where Alabamians could obtain photo identification. The closings were in response to budget cuts, but there was a clear racial pattern.
Of the 10 counties with the highest percentages of African-American voters, eight lost offices. Of the 10 counties with the lowest percentages, only three lost offices.
A federal investigation found that the closings caused “a disparate and adverse impact on the basis of race.” Alabama reopened the offices and agreed to increase their hours in several majority-black counties.
In January 2016, Alabama received permission from a federal election official to require proof of citizenship to register to vote in state and local elections, though a judge later blocked the change.
If enforced, this requirement would create a dual system in which the criteria to vote in state and local elections would be stricter than in federal elections, where proof of citizenship is not required. Only one state, Arizona, currently enforces such a system, but several other states have tried. Just this week, a federal district judge struck down Kansas’ proof-of-citizenship law.
Asked in an interview Wednesday whether his office had found any noncitizens on Alabama’s voter rolls, Mr. Merrill said he was not aware of any.
By November 2016, Alabama had at least 66 fewer polling places than it did at the time of the Shelby ruling in 2013, according to a study. Because only 18 of Alabama’s 67 counties were examined, it is not clear whether there was a racial pattern.
Locally, however, there have been some damning moves. For instance, Daphne, a city of 26,000 near Mobile, eliminated three of its five polling places in 2016, disproportionately affecting one of two districts with a significant number of black voters. A Reuters investigation also found racially disparate closings in Georgia.
Nationwide, nearly 3,000 polling places closed between 2012 and 2016. More than 860 of the closings were in seven states, including Alabama, where some or all counties were subject to federal oversight before Shelby.
In September 2016, a federal appeals court upheld a 2010 Alabama law that banned money transfers from one political action committee to another.
The stated intent was to guard against corruption, but the law also hurt the state’s largest black political organization: the Alabama Democratic Conference, which works to turn out black voters. Half or more of its revenue used to come from other political entities.
“It’s cut down on money for advertisements, cut down on money on the ground, cut down on money to employ people,” said Joe L. Reed, the A.D.C.’s state chairman. “It’s just a whole lot of things we would do and could do, we can’t do now.”
In 2017, after mailing postcards to every registered voter, Alabama officials listed more than 340,000 voters as inactive, a precursor to removal from the rolls if they don’t vote in the next four years.
Many states use a similar process to identify voters who have moved, but it can be unreliable. And while inactive voters who show up to the polls are supposed to be allowed to vote normally after verifying their registration details, workers wrongly forced many of them to cast provisional ballots in the U.S. Senate special election, according to the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In fact, in the August primaries, at least two legislators — U.S. Representative Mo Brooks, a Republican, and State Representative Patricia Todd, a Democrat — discovered that they had been marked inactive, though both were able to vote after updating their information.
In 2017, Gov. Kay Ivey signed legislation re-enfranchising thousands of people convicted of felonies. Alabama officials estimated that the change affected 60,000 people.
But Mr. Merrill refused to use state resources to publicize it, or to automatically register people who were turned away before it passed — and a district judge said he wouldn’t order him to.
Advocacy groups worry that many affected Alabamians don’t know about the change. Mr. Merrill’s office has no statistics on how many re-enfranchised people have since registered to vote, but he said he had seen no spikes in weekly voter registration numbers.
After five years, 2018 has been something of a lull in the storm of new voting laws in Alabama. But voting rights groups are bracing for 2019, when the state legislature will reconvene.
“We certainly expect there will be more coming,” said Randall Marshall, executive director of the A.C.L.U. of Alabama.
Michael Wines contributed reporting.
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