In 2011, the Alabama legislature passed a voter ID law requiring voters to bring an approved form of photo identification — such as a state-issued driver’s license — to the polls. The law went into effect in 2014, and in 2015 state authorities made a surprising announcement: They’d be shuttering 31 of the roughly 75 driver’s license offices in the state, ostensibly due to budgetary problems.
As it turned out, many of the offices were located in majority-black counties, leading to widespread public outcry and criticism from civil rights groups.
Stories on the office closures dating to 2015 are now making the rounds on social media in the run-up to Tuesday’s Senate contest between Democrat Doug Jones and Republican Roy Moore. But those stories are missing a key fact: In response to the outrage over the closings, then-Gov. Robert Bentley reversed the decision a little over a month later.
And late last year, the state agreed to expand license office hours in a number of rural, predominantly black counties in response to a federal Department of Transportation investigation.
According to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, there are driver’s license offices in every Alabama county except for one: Lauderdale County, which is 87 percent white and is served primarily by an office immediately across the Tennessee River in Colbert County.
Many of the offices in smaller counties are open only during limited hours each month. In Cherokee County (pop. 25,897, 93 percent white), for instance, the office is open only the first Tuesday of each month. The office in Chambers County (pop. 34,018, 57 percent white) is open only on the second Thursday.
But the primary determinant in a license office’s hours of operation appears to be population, rather than race. The total number of days that a county’s license offices are open in a month bears essentially no relationship to the percentage of black residents in the county, as the left plot (below) shows — that’s partially due to the decision last year to expand license office hours in some predominantly black counties.
But the total number of people in a given county can explain over 40 percent of the variation in the number of days that the county’s license offices are open.
Note that this chart assumes that a full-time license office is open 20 days a month (Monday through Friday, for four weeks). Some counties have more than one office, so their total number of open days may be higher than that.
For instance, a county with two full-time offices would have 20 days of availability at one office and 20 at the other, for 40 days total.
These numbers show that there’s not really a relationship between minority population and the number of days county license offices are open. But that doesn’t mean that the initial shuttering of the offices wasn’t discriminatory in either intent or effect. For instance, a report issued at the behest of the Alabama House Judiciary Committee found that the closings were intended to have a “limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies.”
Voting remains considerably more difficult in Alabama than in many other states. For starters, the photo ID requirement is still in place. This year, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund estimated that 118,000 registered voters in Alabama, disproportionately black and Latino, lacked the required identification documents.
Separately, the state’s laws preventing certain felons from voting keep approximately 286,000 otherwise eligible adults away from the polls, according to a 2016 estimate by the Sentencing Project. Earlier this year, the state’s Republican governor signed a bill restoring voting rights to some of those disenfranchised felons.
There are roughly 3.7 million adults age 18 and over in Alabama, meaning that before this year, roughly 1 in 9 Alabama residents, disproportionately nonwhite, were unable to vote due to either a lack of photo ID or a prior felony conviction.
In an interview last year, Alabama’s secretary of state, John Merrill, said that “as long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.”