Voter suppression in Alabama confirms true threat to free and fair elections

Under the guise of enforcing voter fraud protections—and with a gutted Voting Rights Act doing little to stop them—conservatives in power appear to be doing everything they can to suppress minority votes.

Hawaii Independent Staff

Dechauna Jiles has always voted at the First Assembly of God church in Dothan, Alabama. Last fall, she cast her ballot there in the presidential election. When she returned to her longtime polling place a week ago, on Tuesday, December 12, to vote in the Alabama special Senate election, poll workers said her registration status was “inactive.”

“That makes no sense,” Jiles told ThinkProgress. Workers told Jiles that she could only cast a “provisional” ballot, one that would not be counted unless she drove to another precinct to update her information. Jiles wasn’t the only one at the First Assembly polling place that was told this. Six other voters were given the same line.

“It’s not that we’re not showing up to vote—we’re being suppressed,” said Jiles.

Jiles, who is African-American, said it would be a “dishonor to her family” not to vote. Her parents grew up two blocks from the historic 16th Street Baptist Church: a rallying point for civil rights activists during the pivotal Birmingham Children’s Crusade of 1963. It was here that one of the era’s most heinous acts of terror occurred. Klu Klux Klansmen set off a powerful explosive during a Sunday morning service, killing four little girls, in September of that year.

Doug Jones, the winner of the Alabama Senate election, successfully prosecuted two of the Klansmen responsible nearly 40 years after the bombing.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) expressed concern going into the special election that Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s decision to inactivate 340,000 voters one month before the August primary, as well as his recent threat of jailing crossover voters, would have a chilling effect on turnout.

Merrill said he was updating the voter rolls to reflect address changes. But Black voters in Alabama are right to be suspicious. Accoriding to the SPLC, the state has a long history of making it harder for them to cast their ballot. In an interview with the SPLC ahead of 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act, Dorothy Guilford, then 94, recounted taking a literacy test to become eligible and standing in long lines to pay her poll tax.

“Now that, I think, discouraged a lot of people, the long lines, because so many had to go back to work,” Guilford said in the interview.

The Voting Rights Act (VRA) put an end to such overtly discriminatory measures, but the Supreme Court’s decision in 2013 to gut key provisions of the Act opened the door to new forms of discrimination.

In January of 2017, the U.S. Department of Transportation concluded that Alabama—which requires a form of photo ID to vote—disproportionately hurt Black voters in 2015 when it closed 31 driver’s license offices, including offices in eight of the 10 counties with the highest proportion of Black residents.

“Based on its investigation, DOT has concluded that African Americans residing in the Black Belt region of Alabama disproportionately underserved by [the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency]‘s driver licensing services, causing a disparate and adverse impact on the basis of race,” the department said.

Thanks to the federal probe, some of the offices have since reopened. But the closures weren’t the last attack by an Alabama lawmaker on the right to vote.

Just before last year’s presidential election, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill attacked the policy of automatic voter registration calling it the “sorry and lazy way out,” and claiming that “just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything.”

Merrill’s comments were not only ignorant (the 26th Amendment gives citizens who turn 18 precisely the right to vote), but demonstrative of a broader campaign to suppress minority voters.

This campaign appears in the form of President Trump’s wildly unfounded claims of widespread voter fraud, in lawmakers’ purges of voter rolls, in lawsuits against poor counties for out-of-date voter rolls and in gerrymandered districts, which The Root calls potentially the “Civil Rights issue of our time.”

And it appeared in Alabama last Tuesday, when voters across the state reported misleading ballots, police intimidation at the polls and text messages erroneously telling them that their polling locations had changed.

“It’s important for everybody to be able to vote and let their choice be known,” Dorothy Guilford told the SPLC shortly after the VRA was gutted.

Without its protections, systematic voter suppression—not voter fraud—is the real threat to free and fair elections in the United States.