The Department of Transportation on Tuesday launched an official investigation on Alabama, where 34 DMVs announced they would either limit their services or close completely. This comes one year after Alabama chose to pass strict voter ID laws that require photo ID to register to vote, a law that has left about 250,000 Alabama citizens lacking the proper ID for voter registration.
Of Alabama’s 10 counties with the highest non-white voter population, eight will be closed. And more than half of the counties that voted for President Barack Obama’s second term will lose their DMVs. Alabama’s population is 26.7 percent Black, and 27.3 percent of the state’s registered voters are Black.
Ala. Governor Robert Bentley issued a statement Wednesday denying that any of the closures are politically motivated, saying that “opportunistic politicians such as Hillary Clinton have politicized an Alabama budgeting issue, going so far as to travel to our own state for the sake of political pandering.”
“This USDOT investigation is nothing more than a weak attempt to embarrass the people of Alabama and exploit our state in the name of a political agenda,” he said. “I am confident that the USDOT investigation will find no basis for the claims of discrimination. It is time for the Obama Administration and aspiring national politicians to listen to facts, stop wasting taxpayers’ dollars and put the political agendas away.”
The DOT will determine whether the aforementioned closures violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance.”
“Driver license offices offer essential services to the American people, including providing thousands in Alabama with a method of identification,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “It is critical that these services be free of discrimination, and serve the people of the state fairly and equally.”
Foxx said that the DOT is seeking an explanation for how the state settled on the closings or service restrictions at the 34 DMVs in question “and why not others.”
Rep. Terri Sewell, a Democrat and Alabama’s only Black person in its congressional delegation, formally called on Attorney General Loretta Lynch to investigate shortly after the announcement of the closures. According to Sewell, the DMV closures only complicate the problems already caused by the voter ID laws.
“I strongly believe that the decision made by ALEA violates my constituents’ constitutionally protected right to vote, and warrants a full and thorough investigation by DOJ,” she stated in her Oct. 5 letter.
The state reasoned that citizens who would ordinarily do business at the DMVs being closed are expected to instead do it online. But this may not be good enough, according to DOT Civil Rights Acting Director Stephanie Jones.
“Our concern rests in the possibility that the state’s closure of driver license offices disproportionately constrains the ability of some residents to secure driving privileges, register personal and commercial vehicles, and obtain proper identification a critical requirement for access to essential activities such as opening a bank account and voting,” Jones said.
In her letter to Lynch, Sewell wrote, “While there are alternative options, the harsh reality is that many residents affected by this decision will find it hard to travel given limited modes of transportation and the lack of broadband and home computers in the rural areas makes online access very difficult. These closures will potentially disenfranchise Alabama’s poor, elderly, disabled and black communities.”
And no matter what the state’s intention was, the result will be the same.
“Despite a budgetary pretext,” Sewell wrote to Lynch, “the consequence of this decision is to deny the most vulnerable in Alabama and equal opportunity to obtain a means to vote.”
If the DOT finds evidence that the closures are in fact discriminatory, the state will have a chance to comply and reverse its decision. Otherwise, the DOT will take action, and the state could lose millions of dollars.
“Hopefully we won’t get there,” Foxx said, “but if we do it will be very aggressive.”