Recent Alabama DMV Closures Threaten Democracy, Reinforce Negative Image

By Rob Moore

Last June, in the wake of the Charleston white supremacist massacre, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley brought down the four confederate flags that flew around the state Capitol.

“I’m trying to present an image for the state of Alabama that is different than George Wallace’s image,” Bentley said, “If I’m going to help the people of Alabama create jobs and bring companies from all over the world to this state … we do not need a symbol that is portrayed by many people as racist.”

Unfortunately, it seems like Alabama is back to business as usual. Last week, the Governor’s Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced that it will be closing 31 Department of Motor Vehicle offices throughout the state, citing budget constraints. Among these 31 DMV office locations are eight of the ten counties with the highest nonwhite voting populations. Every county with black voters making up 75% or more of the voting population is seeing their DMV office closed.

This comes just a year after Alabama’s strict voter ID law went into effect, which requires either a driver’s license or a similar form of photo identification to vote. The political science literature on voter turnout finds consistently that turnout rates are higher when costs associated with voting are low. For this reason, such laws are considered by many to be bad for democracy, especially because of the discriminatory effect they have on voters of color, the elderly, students, and people with disabilities.

Alabama is a state with a history of discrimination at the ballot box, so much so that the 1901 Alabama state constitution included a reference to poll taxes that legislators were still fighting to remove just a few years ago. In 2013, it was Shelby County, Alabama, that launched the Supreme Court challenge that gutted the Voting Rights Act, allowing southern states with a history of voter discrimination to put laws like Voter ID in effect without federal oversight. Alabama has used the judicial, legislative, and last week the executive branches of government to put forth a combination of policies that threaten the fundamental democratic process of voting.

This combination of policies put in place by the state of Alabama is a threat to both democratic fairness and the hope that Alabama can lift the weight on its shoulders of bad reputation. Bentley is clearly not succeeding in his quest to “present an image for the state of Alabama that is different from George Wallace.” If states like Alabama want to combat brain drain and negative reputation, they should understand that lowering voting restrictions means a lot more than lowering flags.

Rob Moore is a Master of Public Policy student at the Goldman School of Public Policy. He writes on state policy and the politics of public policy.