Driving while Black or poor: Alabama closes DMV access

The state of Alabama has closed 31 of its 67 Department of Motor Vehicle locations where most people get the most commonly used voter ID, the driver’s license.

State officials asserted this was a budgetary, not a political, action and without racist intent. The Alabama NAACP and American Civil Liberties Union quickly exposed this as a lie, citing the fact that counties losing the DMV offices are poor and economically underdeveloped, and most have majority, or significant, Black populations.

The Alabama ACLU reports that as many as 250,000 registered voters in the state don’t have IDs. They now will be unable to vote unless they travel outside their county to get a driver’s license or take an onerous trip to another location for a voter ID. This could mean up to an hour’s trip each way for most people, leading to loss of work time and income. People would also have to arrange, and perhaps pay a stiff price, for private transportation to a state office, since intercounty transportation is minimal or nonexistent. (aclualabama.org)

Thus, the impact of the closures is to directly limit voter participation.

In the ramp-up to the 2016 elections, Republicans and Democrats are engaged in a fierce national fight about available voters. There is a March 1 slate of primaries in the South in Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia, Tennessee and Texas, as well as Virginia and Oklahoma, dubbed the “SEC primary” — a reference to a college football region.

Right-wing Republican candidates like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are already swinging through the region with overt and coded overtures to white voters still entrenched in racism. Democrats are looking to the historically Black vote in the South for their candidates. (USA Today, Oct. 11)

The current right-wing initiative across the U.S. to deny or limit voting rights was drastically strengthened by the 2013 gutting of key portions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. That legislation was first won by a militant Black movement in Alabama. It was also partially overturned through a challenge filed by an Alabama all-white County Commission in white-flight Shelby County. (tinyurl.com/ot49jrp)

Before the U.S. Supreme Court ruled to gut the VRA, the state of Alabama was required by law to submit DMV closures for review by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The day of the Supreme Court ruling, the state of Alabama announced implementation of a photo ID for voting — a requirement known to disproportionately limit voting by people who are poor or nationally oppressed. This was part of a wave of anti-voter, right-wing initiatives across the U.S., with a total of 22 states attempting to pass laws to limit voting access.

According to a Brennan Center for Justice study at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, the more increases in people of color and low-income voter participation, the more likely such states were to push laws limiting voter rights.

In addition to an impact on voting rights, the loss of ready access to drivers’ licenses represents a significant economic hardship on the people of the affected counties.

Because all the counties losing their DMV offices are poor and economically underdeveloped, most local people have to commute outside their counties to get to jobs. In this writer’s home county of Bibb, on the list for DMV closure, 90 percent of local workers commute to jobs outside the county.

At the Hyundai plant in Montgomery, located at the center of majority-Black counties targeted for DMV closure, some workers drive two hours each way to work. (New York Times, Feb. 18, 2011)

Drivers’ licenses and worker organizing

In the last decade, the upswing in auto, electronic and other mass production in Alabama has opened up jobs for those people in the affected counties who could commute to the nearest plant for work. Increasing numbers of these new workers have been Black, Latino/a or female, and are more likely to be involved in worker rights organizing.

In Calhoun County, an historic victory was recently won when workers at a local auto-supply plant in Piedmont voted 2-to-1 to unionize with the UAW. The photo released by the UAW shows a group of multinational, male and female workers celebrating. Calhoun County is targeted for DMV closure.

The recent Alabama restriction of access to drivers’ licenses most definitely limits the voting rights of Black and poor voters.

The restriction of access to driver’s licenses also means that poor workers, especially Black workers, will find it much more difficult to keep driving to find work and keep work.

Local Alabama organizations are mobilizing to fight this right-wing campaign to deny the right to vote and access to work to poor people and people of color.

Moral Monday Alabama, immigrant rights groups, the National Organization for Women and the Alabama NAACP organized summer and fall rallies at the Capitol in Montgomery to continue to form a movement in Alabama modeled on powerful mass protests begun in North Carolina in response to right-wing agendas.

A caravan on Oct. 15 and 16 will protest closings of driver’s license offices and the effect on voting rights. Making stops in eleven counties, it will visit eight with the state’s highest percentage of African-American people. Groups organizing the protest are Save Ourselves Movement for Democracy and Justice, Selma’s Annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee and the Alabama New South Coalition.

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