Voter Suppression – Part 2

Today, I want to look at Alabama. That state had full Democrat control up through 1986, and only in 1996 did that state’s Democratic Party remove the racist rooster symbol. It didn’t have full Republican control of all major state offices until 2010… but that doesn’t mean the Alabama Democrats were pushing a progressive agenda up until 2010.

The key was George Wallace’s control of the party up until the end of his last governor’s term in 1986. Even when the national party structure pressed Alabama’s state party to become desegregationist, Wallace kept it in that camp. Alabama has had a history of being one of the toughest states to both successfully register to vote and then to actually use that vote. From 1969 to 2013, over 100 proposed changes to Alabama voting law were challenged over violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But in 2013, the Roberts Supreme Court heard Shelby County v Holder and made a ruling that gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The VRA required states with a history of voter discrimination to pre-clear any changes in voting law with the federal government. The Shelby County ruling dismantled that preclearance provision. Since 2013, Alabama has introduced measures that absolutely target Black voters, even though it’s possible to make pie-in-the-sky comments about the possible virtues of such measures. The impact of stronger voter ID laws, closure of drivers’s license offices in predominantly Black counties, requiring proof of citizenship to vote, closure of polling places, voter purge measures, and making an unpublicized change to the felony disenfranchisement law all combine to apply massive pressures on Black voters in Alabama. These measures both raise barriers to registration along with nullifying those very registrations through underhanded means.

In short, when the politicians of Alabama could no longer deny the vote to Blacks over poll taxes and literacy tests, they came up with new methods to deny those voters their rights. When the pressure from the national Democratic Party became too strong for the segregationists in the Alabama Democrats to resist, they joined the Republican Party and carried on with their work to further segregationism. Wallace’s famous quote, “In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw the line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” is still their byword. Although Wallace declined to align with any party in his later years, his son switched to the Republican Party in 1992.

Please note that while it was Democrat politicians that put the structure of Jim Crow into place, it is the Alabama Republican Party that is fighting to keep it in place. Because of the challenge in the Shelby County case, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is essentially shelved for the whole of the South. Just as the Republicans made the Corrupt Bargain of 1877 to receive national power at the cost of civil rights for Blacks, the Shelby County ruling was a gift from the Republican-majority Supreme Court to the segregationists not just in the South, but in the nation as a whole. In exchange for gifts like that, white supremacists have a vested interest in preserving Republican power. Because the Republican Party has either failed or struggled to get a majority of the popular vote in the last 3 presidential elections, it *needs* those white supremacists, both their votes and their tactics, in order to hold that power.

The lack of pre-clearance means that restrictive voting measures can be put into place and then inflict their effects on minority voters as the court challenges continue. Having pre-clearance meant that minority voters could continue to cast votes as court challenges over proposed laws proceeded apace. Moreover, states with a history of voter suppression may now continue that history without any regard for legal impact.

So let’s go through that history…

The 1901 Alabama law that included a long list of offences that stripped a voter for life included pretty much all felonies, but also crimes involving “moral turpitude” and then left that term undefined. Basically, an undefined term means just about anything can be made to match that requirement – so people guilty of being in an interracial relationship could be stripped of their votes for life. That law was challenged in 1980 by two potential voters – excluded because they had misdemeanor convictions for bouncing checks – and the Rehnquist Court upheld the challenge, noting that the law was targeting Blacks.

In 1996, Alabama changed its law and re-introduced that vague term. Because of that, and that it has been inconsistently applied to be disproportional in its effects on Black voters, 7% of Alabama’s voting age population can’t vote. That translates to 15% of all the Black voters in the state. Even though Alabama passed a law in 2017 to define “moral turpitude” – because of yet another court challenge – the Alabama Secretary of State so far has not taken steps to notify people affected by that change.

Combined with a history of discriminatory law enforcement, laws that disenfranchise as a result of contact with a racially-biased justice system are in no way race-neutral in their intent or application. Add to it a complicated system that requires a person to petition to be reinstated to vote under the 2017 law, and you have a situation where a normal person living paycheck to paycheck is not going to be able to afford the legal advice necessary to navigate the process. What do you put down as the offense you were convicted of if you have to be specific as to the degree? What if the offense definition/title has changed in its legal definition since you were convicted? What do you do when there’s a clerical error in processing the reinstatement? When other states restore the right to vote automatically, Alabama’s maintenance of a law that keeps Blacks from voting is definitely part of fulfilling Wallace’s declaration.

Alabama also has vague laws on how polling places operate, with further vagueness about training and supervising election officials, which allows for various officials to easily dodge responsibility when things go wrong – so that means things can and will go wrong without punishment, like when a registrar in Russell County in 2019 told people it was OK to register using a business address. Alabama got sued in 2012 for failure to provide ballots to overseas residents – a violation of the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voting Act. In that case, the state argued that it was a *county* responsibility to get those ballots out… but there are different processes for handling elections in each of Alabama’s 67 counties, so would that argument really be the best one to make?

And if you want to look at public records of voting in Alabama, good luck with that. Its Open Records Act is one of the most tightly written in all the Deep South states – Alabama wants to keep its public matters secret, it seems. And, yes, this all has a Democratic legacy, but remember that those segregationists are now registered as Republicans, by and large, and it’s the current Republican administration that’s holding the line on segregation forever. If a public official fails to hand over a record as required by law, the challenger must then sue and bear the costs of the court in the process. Alabama also has fewer public meetings than other states, so those minutes and records from the board of elections are non-existent as public records go. And because one of those public records is the State Voter File, this is a big deal.

One needs that State Voter File to check against discrimination. In Georgia, it can be had for $250. In North Carolina, it is free. In Alabama, it costs $35,008.94 for a printed copy and a digital copy costs 2.5% more. Alabama charges by the name, hence the cost. Arizona used to do the same thing, but changed after a court challenge. Alabama is not so easily swayed: it will make access to that file as close to impossible as it can, so that it can preserve a segregationist set of policies.

Alabama also violates the 1993 National Voter Registration Act by purging voters that do not respond to postcards, which I detailed in Part 1 when I discussed Georgia. That the purges meant that US Representative Mo Brooks (R-AL) was unable to vote for himself pales against the majority of the other nearly 70,000 voters purged – mostly Black.

A note about these postcards that I hadn’t mentioned before – a simple clerical error like leaving a “North” or a “Road” off an address can result in a non-delivery status that leads to a voter being purged. Leaving off an apartment number can have similar drastic effects, and you’ll never guess what racial group *that* hits disproportionately.

Even though a comprehensive study of in-person voting of 1 billion votes cast in the USA from 2000 to 2014 only found 31 credible instances of voter fraud, Alabama joins in with the rest of the Republican Party in clamoring that voter fraud is a major issue to protect ourselves against – and that protection involves measures that effectively disenfranchise Black voters. That voter fraud rate is one case of fraud for every 34 million votes cast, which would mean, at most, 4 cases in the 2016 election. Compared to Republican voter suppression efforts, that is hardly a focus worth having.

Why promote a fear of in-person fraud? It’s to generate support for segregationist voter suppression laws. Plain and simple. This fear of the Black vote is widespread in the Republican Party: when Republican governor of Florida Charlie Crist extended early voting hours in 2008, Republicans flat-out told him that he had handed over the state to Barack Obama. After Crist left office, the following Republican governor rolled back the early voting law. A 2016 North Carolina law was shot down because it would “target African Americans with almost surgical precision.” Again, it was Republicans behind *that* measure.

Alabama’s laws for reporting voter fraud do not require any proof on the part of the accuser. The accuser doesn’t even have to self-identify. Of the 928 submissions of voter fraud accusations – which, unlike voter registration, can be done online and easily – only 6 resulted in fraud convictions. This led to two elections being overturned – and if we recall how the Alabama Secretary of State doesn’t properly train county elections officials, this should be no surprise that there were problems. And yet, the 6 cases of fraud and two small-town elections are used as justification for laws that target Blacks in Alabama.

The elections in question were the Brighton Mayor election, with the election changing from 376 to 330 to 330 votes each for the candidates, resulting in a runoff. Next was the Gordon Mayor election – the mayor there had illegally notarized two of the absentee ballots. That was two of the fraud convictions and the mayor was removed from office after being convicted. This Gordon election was originally cited as a third election overturned due to voter fraud, but the overturning was due to the fraud conviction itself, not because the outcome was changed. The second overturning that still counted was the Wetumpka city council election: the 168-165 result became 165-160 after 8 absentee ballots were thrown out.

A note on absentee ballots – they are very easy to throw out for governments that want to suppress voters, so more on that in a later essay, no doubt.

But, yes, Alabama has a deep-rooted history of suppressing Black votes, and it is the state’s Republican Party doing the most to preserve George Wallace’s “segregation forever” vision.

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