Nearly three months ago, the nation lost Alabama native and legendary voting rights activist Amelia Boynton Robinson at the age of 104. She is likely looking down at her state and smiling today, for it has reached a settlement with the Department of Justice end its noncompliance with the Motor Voter Law.
According to the Alabama Media Group, the state has agreed to add a voter registration section to its standard driver’s license and license renewal applications. This change will also apply to online applications, which is significant because the state closed 30 driver’s licence offices earlier this year, claiming budget cuts. Additionally, the state’s residents will now have their voting address information automatically updated when they submit a change of address for their driver’s licences.
This settlement will not just benefit Alabama’s residents in the future. As part of the agreement, the state will also implement these changes retroactively by contacting all voting-eligible residents who are are currently unregistered to vote at the address listed for their driver’s licenses or other forms of state identification.
The agreement resolves a controversy stemming from a September letter the DOJ sent to Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange threatening to sue the state over its noncompliance with the 1993 Motor Voter Act. The Act comprises Section 5 of the National Voting Rights Act (NVRA), which requires states to offer its residents the opportunity to complete their voter registration when they apply to get or renew a driver’s license, thus making it easier for all Americans to register to vote in federal elections. According to a DOJ investigation, Alabama’s applications for driver’s licenses and alternative identification cards throughout the state did not serve this dual purpose of affording its residents easy voter registration while applying for a driver’s license.
As U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance of the Northern District of Alabama noted, this settlement marks a significant victory for voting rights.
“It is essential for every citizen in our democracy to have a full opportunity to exercise his or her right to vote. The agreement concluded today between the Justice Department and the state of Alabama … will make it easier for its citizens to register to and maintain voter registration while applying for and renewing drivers’ licenses,” Vance stated in the press release announcing the settlement.
Last August, our country celebrated the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Voting Rights Act, yet voting rights are under siege at an unprecedented level. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, there have been at least 180 restrictive voting bills introduced in 41 states since the 2010 midterm election. Before the 2012 election, 19 states had passed a total of 27 laws designed to restrict the right to vote, though many were either overturned or weakened in court.
After the Roberts Court struck down a key provision of the NVRA by a narrow 5-4 majority in 2013, the movement to restrict voting rights gained a second wind. 15 states have passed voting restrictions which will be in effect for the first time during the 2016 election. Most of these states are Southern and swing states, and many of these restrictions changed voter-identification laws. While these laws all address issues unique to their respective states, they do share a common purpose: to make it substantially harder for some citizens to vote. These laws also share a common outcome in that they all seem to impact minority, low-income, and elderly voters disproportionately.
Because of these widespread attempts to restrict voting rights, our celebration of the NVRA’s 50th anniversary felt muted. Today’s news out of Alabama at least offers a glimmer of hope during this bleak era in which we have seen an organized effort to restrict the voting rights of the many to expand the political power of the few.