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Voter suppression in Alabama: what’s true and what’s not

A bunch of stories about Alabama have gone viral in the past few days. But some of them are outdated and wrong.

Doug Jones, Alabama’s Democratic candidate for US Senate.
Doug Jones, Alabama’s Democratic candidate for US Senate.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

With the US Senate race in Alabama looking close, there has been a lot of attention on social media to how the Southern state has worked to suppress voting rights.

The concern is that attempts at voter suppression in such a close race — particularly those targeting black Alabamians, who are more likely to vote Democrat — could flip the election from Democrat Doug Jones to Republican Roy Moore.

Many of the stories circulating, however, have relied on outdated or flat-out wrong information. While there have been some efforts to make voting harder for Alabama (with arguably racist motives), there have also been some efforts to make voting easier in the state this past year.

Here’s a breakdown of what’s really going on.

Does Alabama have a strict voter ID law?


Alabama in 2011 passed its strict voter ID law. It requires that voters have at least one of several specific kinds of photo ID to cast their ballots, such as a driver’s license, non-driver ID, US passport, student or employee ID at a college or university in Alabama, or military or tribal ID. The state offers free photo IDs to voters.

Republicans say their intent with the law was to stop voter fraud. But the research shows that in-person voter impersonation, which these kinds of laws target, is extremely rare. One study by Loyola Law School professor Justin Levitt found just 35 credible accusations of voter impersonation between 2000 and 2014, constituting a few hundred ballots at most. During this 15-year period, more than 800 million ballots were cast in national general elections and hundreds of millions more were cast in primary, municipal, special, and other elections.

Critics of such laws argue they have a disproportionate impact on black voters, since they are less likely to have the means — whether money, transportation, or hours off work — to get a voter ID. This is significant in Alabama since about 25 percent of the state’s electorate is black, and black residents are more likely to vote Democrat. Scott Douglas, executive director of the Greater Birmingham Ministries, also noted some of the racist motivations behind Alabama’s law in a New York Times op-ed:

A state senator who had tried for over a decade to get the bill into law, told The Huntsville Times that a photo ID law would undermine Alabama’s “black power structure.” In The Montgomery Advertiser, he said that the absence of an ID law “benefits black elected leaders.”

The bill’s sponsors were even caught on tape devising a plan to depress the turnout of black voters — whom they called “aborigines” and “illiterates” who would ride “H.U.D.-financed buses” to the polls — in the 2010 midterm election by keeping a gambling referendum off the ballot. Gambling is popular among black voters in Alabama, so they thought if it had remained on the ballot, black voters would show up to vote in droves.

According to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, about 118,000 registered voters — who are disproportionately black and Latino — won’t have the necessary documentation to vote under the law.

The question is whether those people would have voted if they had proper ID and whether the NAACP Legal Defense Fund’s estimate is accurate. As Nate Cohn explained in the New York Times, there are reasons for caution when looking at these numbers:

[T]he true number of registered voters without photo identification is usually much lower than the statistics on registered voters without identification suggest. The number of voters without photo identification is calculated by matching voter registration files with state ID databases. But perfect matching is impossible, and the effect is to overestimate the number of voters without identification.

The research shows that voter ID laws and other voting restrictions have a fairly small overall impact on elections, at most reducing turnout by a percentage point or two. But in a close election like the one that’s expected in Alabama, that may be enough to swing the race.

Did Alabama close down DMVs where people could get IDs for voting?

For a bit, but it has since reversed the move.

Over the past few days, stories claiming that Alabama had closed DMV offices in predominantly black counties went viral. The concern is that the closure of these offices would make it difficult for people to get proper IDs to vote.

But the stories getting attention were almost all from 2015. Since then, the state has partially reversed the closures and expanded some office hours after a federal probe found that the move disproportionately hurt black residents.

The result, based on a statistical analysis by Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post, is that there is now no correlation between DMV availability and race. Instead, there appears to be a correlation only between a county’s total population, black or white, and DMV availability.

A chart showing the correlation between DMV office availability and either race or population. Christopher Ingraham/Washington Post

“These numbers show that there's not really a relationship between minority population and the number of days county license offices are open,” Ingraham wrote. “But that doesn't mean that the initial shuttering of the offices wasn't discriminatory in either intent or effect. For instance, a report issued at the behest of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee found that the closings were intended to have a ‘limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies.’”

So as concerning as the initial closures were, they don’t seem to be having a racially disproportionate impact today.

Does Alabama suppress people convicted of felonies from voting?

Yes, but the law’s impact has been somewhat mitigated this year.

Alabama, like most states, prohibits at least some people from voting based on their criminal records.

The Sentencing Project estimated in 2016 that more than 286,000 otherwise eligible adults in Alabama — nearly 8 percent of the voting population — couldn’t vote as a result of the restrictions. Since the criminal justice system is racially disparate, this also led to racially disproportionate outcomes: Nearly 144,000 otherwise eligible black adults — more than 15 percent of the black voting population in Alabama — couldn’t vote.

But Alabama took some steps this year to alleviate this problem, passing a bill that will restore voting rights for some people with felony convictions — potentially a few thousand, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. One problem: The secretary of state, Republican John Merrill, has refused to promote the law, potentially leaving newly eligible voters in the dark as to whether they can vote.

What about all this stuff with digital ballot records?

In an ongoing court battle, the state is trying to preserve its ability to delete digital images of paper voting ballots. On Monday, the Alabama Supreme Court stayed the order stopping the state from doing so — meaning the state will be able to delete its digital records from Tuesday’s US Senate election.

The concern is that without these records, it will be more difficult to detect whether electronic voting machines have been tampered with. Merrill, Alabama’s secretary of state, said that the state still keeps the original paper ballots for records, as it’s legally required to, for 22 months after the election.

But Priscilla Duncan, an attorney for the Alabama voters suing over the issue, isn’t convinced. She told, “It’s just all about transparency. It’s like saying, ‘well, we don’t need a car because we have a horse and buggy.’”

It’s hard to say how all of this will shake out

The voter ID law will likely keep some people from the polls. Restrictions on the voting rights of people with felonies will have an even bigger impact, although it should be mitigated compared to previous elections. The DMV closures that many people heard about in viral stories, however, probably won’t have a big, disparate effect, based on Ingraham’s analysis at the Washington Post.

But if the election in Alabama proves to be close, you can bet that even the tiniest differences will be litigated in the following days. After all, just about anything could have a decisive impact in a close election. And with an election that people have put so much into as, in some ways, a referendum on President Donald Trump, many will continue to watch for even those small differences.

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