In 2011, Alabama’s legislature aggressively redrew statehouse and U.S. House districts to forge enduring red supermajorities by segregating each party’s reliable voters. Democrats sued over the state senate gerrymander, saying it was illegally based on race. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually told the state to redraw its map. Alabama did, but little changed, pushing the Democrats this past spring to say they were going back to federal court. In the meantime, the districts with more reliable GOP voters remain.
The gerrymander was only the start, however. The lawsuit that gutted the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 originated in Alabama. A conservative Supreme Court majority ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the landmark law’s enforcement formula was unconstitutional, allowing the Justice Department to veto any change in voting procedures that the DOJ concluded were discriminatory, compared to the prior law or protocol. Days after that 2013 court decision, Alabama and other deep-red states began imposing new restrictions on the voting process.
Alabama didn’t just toughen voter ID requirements to get ballots at polling places; it closed dozens of state motor vehicle offices in so-called “black belt” counties, making it difficult to impossible for people to get the newly required state IDs. A lawsuit forced the state to reopen the DMV offices one day a month. Alabama Republicans also added paper proof of citizenship as a registration requirement for state elections—a separate and unequal standard seen in only two other states. These intentional barriers were aimed at likely Democratic voting blocs, including the poor, young people and non-whites. The gerrymander created GOP victories by segregating or splintering reliable voters, and the stricter ID and new registration requirements added to that by undermining voter turnout.
This was the voting landscape heading into 2017, with the state so securely in red hands that its legislature revised a century-old law banning anyone convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” from voting. In May, the legislature passed the Felony Voter Disqualification Act, which listed crimes for which ex-felons were disenfranchised. That list meant a sizeable slice of the 250,000 former felons in the state, most of them black, could start the process to regain voting rights. Inquiries to the Board of Pardons and Paroles asking how many applications had been filed since May went unanswered. (Monday was the last day to register for the December 12 special election.)