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Columnist: Alabama punishes all voters and drivers by closing DMV offices

By John A. Tures

Contributing columnist

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The first phase in Alabama was passing a strict voter ID law. The second phase was to close down more than 90 percent of DMV offices. The third phase may involve restricting voting to just four spots, unless the trend is reversed. And your state may be the next one to emulate Alabama.

Slashing funding to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) involves draconian budget cuts that would eventually eliminate 45 of 49 driver’s license offices. For a state with one of the lowest voting rates in the country, that trend is sure to continue its decline.

Former New York senator and secretary of state Hillary Clinton raised the concern during a campaign stop in Birmingham, Alabama, pointing out that many of the targeted offices are in areas where poor blacks live. And Congresswoman Terri Sewell raised the issue with the Department of Justice to investigate, but given the recent gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Supreme Court (Shelby County v. Holder, which is an Alabama case, by the way), that avenue seems less likely to bear fruit.

The measure has been described as cost-saving measure, but unless the state is cutting 92 percent of their drivers, it doesn’t make sense to cut 92 percent of its DMV offices. It just means longer lines at the DMV offices that stay open.

Evidence shows that some folks may have to drive up to 186 miles to reach the nearest DMV. I am sure critics will say that’s just a three hour drive, but going back and forth makes it a six hour swing, to say nothing of the line you might face when you get there. Our rural Georgia DMV branch always has people waiting in line when I go there.

And if you live in one of the four spots lucky enough to keep a DMV, you’ll have to get in line behind everyone whose DMV office closed and drove a long way to get there. Forget renewing your license during your lunch break.

In an attempt to ward off criticism, Gov. Robert Bentley offered the possibility that the DMV office would open up for one day a month in each of the exiting 49 branches. See my earlier comments about lines and costs for how this idea might go over.

But aren’t other Southern states doing the same thing? Not today. There are 44 DMV offices in Tennessee, 66 in South Carolina, at least one in all 67 counties in Florida, 98 in Mississippi and plenty more in Georgia (my students looked these up before class).

For the record, as someone who lives right next door to east Alabama and has relatives in central Alabama, I know that some of those affected areas also include poor rural whites who tend to vote conservative. What’s two hours on Mapquest is not two hours on those back roads, if you’ve ever driven them.

It also targets college students in Auburn and at the University of Alabama, which includes liberal and conservative students. In fact, students of ours who are residents of Alabama but attend college here in Georgia were the ones who brought the issue to my attention.

Each of those groups pose a threat to the new governing establishment in the Alabama legislature, either in a general election or in a GOP party primary. If you can force someone to drive six hours to get a voter ID just to cast a ballot, what’s keeping you from requiring someone to drive a similar length just to vote on Election Day?

For anyone living in Alabama, or states considering emulating Alabama, it’s time to call your legislator, before you have to drive 186 miles and back to vote for or against that person.

John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College. He may be reached at jtures@lagrange.edu.