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Story Publication logo March 4, 2020

How Alabama Tries to Suppress the Vote

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Red white and blue "I voted" stickers with American flag are on a spool of stickers placed on a voting booth platform. Image by Barbara Kalbfleisch. United States, undated. 
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Voter suppression, harsh voter ID laws, and voter disenfranchisement are on the rise. How does this...

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Bernie Sanders supporters in Huntsville, Alabama. Image by Katssoup / Shuttestock. United States, 2020.
Bernie Sanders supporters in Huntsville, Alabama. Image by Katssoup / Shuttestock. United States, 2020.

MOBILE, ALABAMA – While most of the country focuses on Super Tuesday's delegate bonanzas (California and Texas), the Democratic Party in Alabama is doing its part to get out the vote in the presidential preference primary. In the Heart of Dixie, however, getting to the polls can be more difficult for some people than others. A slew of voter-suppression laws and offensives have swept the state in the past ten years. Alabama has also seen a lack of investment—or actual disinvestment—in its voting infrastructure. Poll worker trainings, voting machine upkeep and improvement, and general voter information have all been underfunded.

Since the Supreme Court's Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder decision, Alabama has implemented several laws to suppress the vote, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Shortly after the decision, the state passed a strict voter ID law, reducing to seven the kinds of photo ID it accepted—and beginning in October, the state will require a "Real ID," which looks like a normal ID with an added star symbol but requires more documentation to obtain. The state also tried to close down and heavily restrict the business hours of DMV offices, which is where residents can get a Real ID, and many of which happen to be in majority black counties. In 2017, Alabama also passed the Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, which helped restore voting rights to former felons but continued to prevent many formerly incarcerated people from registering to vote because of fines and fees.

These restrictions have been compounded by the secretary of state's decisions to consolidate precincts into a fewer number of polling stations and shifting registered voters from the normal voting rolls to "inactive lists," which can cause confusion on Election Day for poll workers.

"We've got all the challenges you're reading about. In Mobile, we've got them all," says Ben Harris, the chairman of the Mobile County Democratic Executive Committee. He adds that voters in Mobile County find themselves in a particularly complicated position because Mobile is a purple area of a red state that, like Birmingham and Montgomery, has some blue pockets.

Mobile County became especially important in the 2017 special election for the Senate seat that opened when Jeff Sessions became attorney general. Democrat Doug Jones beat Roy Moore, his Republican opponent, by about 20,000 votes, and he carried Mobile County by about 15,500 votes. Senator Jones says he and his team ran a campaign focused on grassroots organizing that aimed to reach every possible demographic of voter, but they were also conscious of the obstacles unique to "underserved communities" in his state.

"Unfortunately, when you're running as a Democrat, you have to run in defensive mode as much as an offensive one in order to make sure that people have the ability to cast their vote. It can be a problem in certain areas that are traditionally underserved communities, predisposed to vote for Democratic candidates," Jones said in an interview with the Prospect.

For the past year, Mobile County Democrats have been canvassing every Saturday and working to address the obstacles people in this community face to get to the ballot box. Harris says one of the biggest factors preventing people from registering and participating is not knowing that they are even eligible.

Despite the laws passed to restore people's voting rights, the information gap between the laws and voters leaves some voters unsure of their rights.

"The one that really strikes me and this is particularly, but not exclusively, from the young African American men that we speak to," Harris says, is that "they believe they cannot register to vote because of a small offense in their background." Despite the laws passed to restore people's voting rights, the information gap—created and preserved by the secretary of state—between the laws and voters leaves some voters unsure of their rights.

Jones says that when he ran for office, his campaign and supportive group were conscious of those most affected by voter suppression and made special efforts to get them to the polls. Although you won't see the Democratic Party's presidential nominee spending his time or money in Alabama during the general election, Jones says, the Democratic Party hasn't forgotten Alabama or the rest of the South.

Although Jones's win was viewed as an anomaly, he is quick to point out the rise of other Southern Democratic politicians like Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Andrew Gillum of Florida, Mike Espy of Mississippi, and Beto O'Rourke of Texas.

"We're working from the ground up, not from the top down. We've got to get back in the education, city council, county commissioner races and state legislative races," Jones says. "This is not an issue where Democrats expect to flip an entire state or region overnight, and it may not ever happen. The key is making sure they have competitive races and messages, because that's how we progress as a region and as a state."

Groups focused on community organizing like the Poor People's Campaign, the local NAACP chapters, and local parties—like the one in Mobile—work year-round to prepare voters for logistical hiccups and inform them of their rights if any problems occur. But there will be no way to count how many people have been unable to cast their votes because of the obstacles placed in their path.

"If I could multiply by 1,000 percent the resources we have to get the vote out, I would. And it still wouldn't be enough," Harris says.

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