Black citizens in Alabama in last year’s midterm elections came closer to parity with whites than in most other states, according to a U.S. Census report released last week.
Turnout surged in Alabama and across the country, rising in all age and race groups compared with the 2014 midterms. The increase of 11.5 percentage points overall nationally exceeded the 8.2-point increase in Alabama.
But the racial gap in Alabama was roughly half as big nationally as in the nation as a whole. The report, which calculated turnout as a percentage of adult citizens – whether they were registered to vote or not – found that non-Hispanic whites out-voted African-Americans by 3.1 points in Alabama. Nationally, that gap was 6.4 points.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said the numbers refute oft-repeated allegations that the state’s voter identification law and other election integrity measures suppress the African-American vote. He noted that since January 2015, the state has registered more than 1.2 million new voters and now has a record of nearly 3.5 million.
What’s more, he added, a higher percentage of eligible African-Americans are registered than eligible whites.
“We’ve also broken every record in the history of the state for participation in elections in the last four major elections that we’ve had,” he said. “So, we’re excited about that narrative. And that’s the one that we intend to promote.”
Critics long have accused the state of taking steps to discourage black voter participation. Groups like the NAACP, the Brennan Center for Justice and the American Civil Liberties Union have documented those steps in report after report.
They include a 2010 law strengthening the requirement that voters show identification. The law now requires a driver’s license or other photo identification in order to cast a ballot. The state also requires proof of citizenship in order to register to vote.
In addition, voting rights groups fault the state for aggressively scrubbing the voter rolls to remove voters who have died or moved, a process they contend can accidentally prevent valid voters from casting ballots.
And the state garnered a burst of negative publicity nationally in 2015 when then-Gov. Robert Bentley ordered 31 driver’s license offices to close as a cost-cutting measure.
Many of those offices were in majority-black counties, and critics argued the change made it harder to get a valid ID needed to vote, although Merrill pointed out that state voter registration offices remained open. Voters who do not have a valid ID can obtain a state voter ID card for free. He said the state has given out about 11,000 of them.
The Rev. Ledell Cleveland Jr., a former political action chairman of the Mobile County chapter of the NAACP, says he remains concerned about the state’s photo voter ID law and its application. The state NAACP and other organizations unsuccessfully sued to block the law.
“As far as the voter ID, anytime our state or government issues that type of requirement, we’re gonna always be suspicious, because we are in the South,” he said. “We have a history of voter repression, and suppression.”
Cleveland said a lack of communication also discourages voting. He said local governments often fail to adequately inform citizens of changes like the relocation of polling places.
“Our main push is to get people out to vote,” he said. “And it’s still not where we want it to be.”
The census report, however, indicates little correlation between voter ID laws and racial parity in voting during last year’s midterms. The racial gap was higher in many blue states with lax voter ID laws. In Nevada, it was nearly 20 percent. In the District of Columbia, it was almost 16 percent.
Massachusetts, California and Minnesota also had double-digit disparities.
Merrill said he knows of no voters turned away from the polls in Alabama last year because they did not have photo ID.
“That would be zero,” he said. “Because, if there had been more than zero, you would have heard a national outcry about how Alabama is mistreating her people, about how Alabama is not allowing her people to participate at the polls.”
Merrill said the Secretary of State’s Office sends a van across the state to festivals and other events in all 67 counties every year to help people register to vote.
“We’ll come to their house and give them an ID,” he said. “We’ve done that on more than a dozen occasions since I’ve been the secretary of state.
As for removing voters from the rolls, Merrill said the state follows the procedures laid out by federal law. He said when voters fail to cast ballots in successive elections and do not respond to letters from elections officials during a four-year period, their names go on the “inactive” voter list. That means they can still vote if they show up on Election Day, provided they can demonstrate that they remain at the address where they lived when they first registered.
The state has removed 780,000 people from the voter rolls during Merrill’s tenure. He said that is essential to maintaining accurate voter lists.
“I’m proud of that,” he said.
Merrill said he ignores the national naysayers.
“I think it’s very important to note that in Alabama, we’re not following the national narrative,” he said. “We are setting a national, regional and obviously, a state standard for excellence in voter registration and voter participation. We’re very excited about that.”
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