According to a recent statement by the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund (LDF) the U.S. Department of Transportation the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA), Alabama’s department of motor vehicles, entered an agreement that fully restores the hours of driver’s license issuing offices in nine predominately African-American counties in the Black Belt region of the state. This agreement is the result of community pressure and legal action against the policy limiting access to driver licensing offices in rural parts of the state, especially in the Alabama Black Belt.
In addition, for the next two years, the agreement requires ALEA to seek pre-approval from the U.S. Department of Transportation before initiating any driver’s license office closures or other reductions in service.
On September 30, 2015, ALEA announced that it would eliminate services at 31 driver license field offices in 30 counties throughout the State of Alabama. The following month, ALEA announced that it would reopen the closed field offices one to two days per month.
On December 9, 2015, DOT informed ALEA that it had determined that these service reductions could potentially come into conflict with ALEA’s responsibilities to ensure non-discrimination as a recipient of Federal financial assistance under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. On that date, DOT further notified ALEA that it was opening a formal Title VI investigation into whether the reduction of driver license services discriminated against African Americans and/or other populations on the basis of race, color, or national origin.
In October 2015 the Alabama New South Coalition and the SOS Coalition for Justice and Democracy held a caravan, which visited all Driver License offices in the Black Belt that were closed by Governor Bentley. The Governor says the offices, which were only open once a week to test and license new drivers, were closed in a budget cutting move to save money for the state. He closed 31 offices statewide in rural counties, which included 11 of 13 offices in the Alabama Black Belt counties.
Since Alabama recently adopted a stringent voter ID law, which requires a state issued photo identification document to vote, many Black leaders considered this another attack on voting and an effort to suppress the Black vote in the state.
In Greene County the Caravan attracted more than 60 people who demonstrated in front of the Greene County Courthouse mid-day holding signs and chanting “No Shutdowns.” Several local political leaders including County Commissioner Lester Brown and School Board member, Carol P. Zippert, addressed the crowd and urged that the offices be reopened on a weekly basis.
The agreement states that the Counties of Greene, Bullock, Butler, Hale, Lowndes and Perry will have their drivers license offices open one day per week; Macon County 2 days per week; Wilcox County will open 3 days per month; and Bibb Counties will open 2 days per month.
This important agreement with ALEA comes one year after the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF), Covington and Burling, LLP, and local counsel Herman N. Johnson, Jr. filed a lawsuit on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama NAACP, and four individual voters challenging Alabama’s Photo ID Law and the ALEA office closings as violations of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the U.S. Constitution.
The LDF noted that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s findings validate the necessity of this lawsuit and confirm the significant hurdles that our clients and other Black and Latino Alabamians face in getting the photo ID needed to vote. These findings also prove that Alabama was wrong in repeatedly arguing that the ALEA closures did not have a disparate impact on Black voters. LDF’s lawsuit will continue to press for the elimination the Photo ID Law, a discriminatory barrier to voting for thousands of people of color.
“Alabama’s decision in 2015 to close driver’s license offices in most of its majority Black counties was an egregious act of racial discrimination,” said Sherrilyn A. Ifill, LDF’s President and Director Counsel. “The ALEA office closings severely limited Black people’s access to transportation and to the photo ID needed to vote in the 2016 elections. We commend the work of the U.S. Department of Transportation in thoroughly investigating this issue and welcome the restoration of services to these rural communities.”