How Alabama Attempted to Suppress the Black Vote

The state didn't succeed, but voter repression is still a major issue for election reform.
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Voters stand in a long line that leads out the door to vote at Beulah Baptist Church polling station in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 12th, 2017.

Voters stand in a long line that leads out the door to vote at Beulah Baptist Church polling station in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 12th, 2017.

The narrative around the Doug Jones vs. Roy Moore United States Senate race in the days leading up to this past week's election was that black people needed to vote at higher rates than normal. African Americans typically do not turn out in large numbers for Alabama elections, especially in off-year races, goes the narrative, and hence Jones needed an unusual surplus of black votes to win. However, as Vann Newkirk pointed out in The Atlantic, what's left from this narrative is that part of why black voter turnout, or even black voter energy, has been low in past elections is because of Alabama's long history of making it difficult for black people to vote.

This is, after all, the state that has produced some of the most innovative ways to suppress the vote throughout the 20th century, compelling the civil rights and voting rights movements into existence. It's an identity that Moore and Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill have sounded eager to continue. Black voters exceeded voter turnout expectations and played a huge role in electing Jones, but they had to overcome several handicaps at the polls, as did many voters in general, to do that.

Black Get-Out-the-Vote Efforts Were Compromised: As law scholar Richard Pildes explains at Election Law Blog, one of the most instrumental organizations for black political participation in the state is the Alabama Democratic Conference. Since 1960, the ADC has not only helped to protect the voting rights of the state's African-American residents, but it also helped get them to the polls during elections. But its efforts were crippled this year thanks to a new state law that forbids political organizations from making financial donations to other political groups, which is how the ADC earned much of its revenue. Writes Pildes:

Given the economic position of many blacks in Alabama, the ADC charges membership dues of only $15/year, and less than half its financial resources traditionally came from these dues. More than half its financing for things like GOTV efforts came from organizations representing teachers and trial lawyers, which shared ADC's political aims. When Alabama banned political groups from providing financial support to other political groups, it cut off nearly half the money ADC received for its GOTV efforts.

Police Checks at the Polls: The Daily Beast reported seeing police set up near polling locations to check people for warrants in Montgomery, Alabama, one of the state's urban centers where black voters helped send Jones to victory. There is a long history of this specific kind of police badge-sponsored voter intimidation in Alabama (and other states) to frighten black voters away from the polls.

Faulty Voting Equipment: Also out of Montgomery, there were reports of long lines caused, in part, by voting machines that broke down throughout the day. Merrill also failed to deploy an adequate number of polling officials and resources based on his belief that there would be extremely low voter turnout. He was wrong. Studies have shown that African Americans disproportionately have to wait longer to vote, mainly because of understaffed polling locations in black precincts.

Voter ID: While some federal and state courts have declared voter ID laws racially discriminatory, as have most studies, Alabama has been determined to move forward with a voter ID law regardless. This state's version of the law is particularly problematic because it was unfurled right as Merrill announced the closures of voter ID centers in several counties throughout the Black Belt. The closures are the subject of both a federal lawsuit, which goes to trial in February, and a Department of Transportation civil rights investigation, because the law makes it difficult for African Americans to get IDs and driver's licenses. There were no shortage of voter ID problems in this election, with poll workers questioning the validity of some voters' IDs when not rejecting them outright. Alabama's voter ID law was enabled by the 2013 Supreme Court decision that gutted the Voting Rights Act. That case was filed on behalf of Shelby County, Alabama—the same county where black voters turned out yesterday in droves to help Jones win, almost as if it was revenge.

Ballot Confusion: There were complaints that the ballot's design was confusing given that it gave the voter the option to vote either straight-ticket, which casts a blanket vote for all the people running in a particular party, or for the individual candidate. There was no need for this given that there was only one candidate representing each party in this special election: Jones for Democrats; Moore for Republicans. Some voters were told that if they voted for both party and for a candidate from a different party that their vote wouldn't count.

Merrill's response to the complaints about the ballot confusion was less than clarifying:

Votes cast indicating a voters [sic] party preference will cast a ballot for the party nominee representing that party unless the voter also selects a candidate on the ballot. In the event that a voter marks the ballot for a candidate, that voter mark supersedes any other option marked by the voter. This voter action does not cause an over-vote of the ballot nor does it interfere with the voters [sic] ballot being counted.

Inactive Voter List: When people fail to return mailers that verify their address to the state secretary's office, they are placed on an "inactive voter" list. Appearing on this list does not disqualify a person from voting—they are able to cast a ballot and verify their voter eligibility by showing some form of ID. Thousands of Alabamians were added to this inactive list (some erroneously) earlier this year, and some were told that they could not vote because of this, according to Pema Levy at Mother Jones.

While, these problems happened everywhere, they were most prevalent in cities where the largest pockets of black voters were concentrated. Cities also were a key voting demographic for Jones' victory, favoring Jones by a 71 percent margin.

Voter suppression is still a problem, though. While the turnout for black voters was far higher than for prior races, there still is no way to quantify who was not able to vote because of the election-day problems and new laws. Black voters helped Jones win despite voter suppression, not because they were spared from it.

This story originally appeared on CityLab, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to CityLab's newsletters and follow CityLab on Facebook and Twitter.

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