Voting Rights Under Attack in Alabama: Why It Matters

by Rachel Rye Butler

October 8, 2015

Alabama's recent attack on voting rights is the perfect example of why fighting for environmental justice means fighting to restore our democracy.

Journey for Justice Rally.

An activist makes patches to distribute at the rally to Restore the Voting Rights Act, the conclusion of America's Journey for Justice, a 1,000-mile march for voting rights.

© Colin Wheeler / Greenpeace

When an ALEC-style voter ID bill made it through the Alabama legislature requiring every person have a state-issued photo ID in order to vote, we knew this could have serious consequences for Alabama communities.

Like many states, Alabama has a history of blocking people of color from the polls. At the same time, it’s the state where the Civil Rights Movement brought black Americans’ struggle for voting rights to the national stage, resulting in the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Last week, just one year after its voter ID bill went into effect, Alabama made a move that seems to put the state back into the 1960s by closing 31 driver’s license locations where people can get the state-issued IDs necessary to vote — the majority of them in black communities.

A closer look reveals that every county in Alabama where more than 75 percent of the population is black will have its driver’s licence location closed. 

Clearly, there’s a big problem here.

The Problem With Voter ID

Voter ID is not about preventing voter fraud — a total non-problem manufactured as a scare tactic to pass restrictive voter ID laws. It’s a strategy to keep low-income people, people of color, young folks and older people away from the polls.

Nearly 25 percent of African Americans do not have driver’s licenses. This number goes up in rural areas, like many of the affected counties in Alabama. No license likely means limited access to transportation. So now, even to get a license as a form of voter ID, many residents will have to rely on neighbors or public transportation (62 percent of black residents in Alabama rely on public transportation) to get to offices that are farther away. Those who have jobs with limited time off cannot afford to take more time out of their day to stand in lines that will likely be three times longer now that everyone in the state must rely on the few remaining offices.

These closures have all but ensured less African American turnout in the next election.

A Step Backwards for Environmental Justice

This is a serious blow to democracy and voting rights, which is a blow to the environment, women’s health and other issues many of you care about.

Despite the state’s insistence that it is compliant with laws meant to protect communities from environmental harm, residents beg to differ. The recent case of the Arrowhead Landfill — a dumping ground for household garbage, industrial waste and coal ash smack in the middle of an African American neighborhood — lends weight to these claims. In fact, there have been 11 civil rights complaints against the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) in the past 17 years, among the highest of any state in the country. ADEM officials are appointed by elected politicians, those voted into office by the people of Alabama. With access to voting restricted, citizens have even fewer means to protect themselves from environmental injustice.

The Koch Brothers and their allies played a role in orchestrating these restrictions on voting rights, knowing the ramifications for the majority of the populace and what it means for their bottom line. Had the Voting Rights Act not been gutted by the Supreme Court’s Shelby v. Holder decision, we would not be in this position today. Before it was gutted, the Voting Rights Act required that major legislative changes that impact access to the polls be cleared by the Department of Justice.

Just weeks ago, thousands came to Washington demanding Congress restore voting rights for the people in this country. This is exactly why. Attacks like this one will continue in the months leading up to the general election unless Congress and the Obama administration act now to restore and improve the Voting Rights Act. We can’t afford to wait while state by state the Koch Brothers and their allies run all over our democracy.

Tell Congress to restore our democracy by passing the Voting Rights Advancement Act today.

Rachel Rye Butler

By Rachel Rye Butler

Rachel Rye Butler leads the Democracy Campaign at Greenpeace USA. She writes frequently about people power, voting rights, and money in politics.

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