Unlike previous election years, Alabama voters now must provide proof of citizenship before casting their ballots, shining a light on a remnant of HB56.
Voters in Alabama, Kansas and Georgia will be required to have valid state-issued photo identification at the polls this year as well as when they register to vote.
As one of the harshest anti-immigration bills in the country, HB 56, was largely gutted by the federal courts. However, the provision that required voters to have a state issued ID in order to register to vote was upheld and enacted on June 3, 2014.
Advocates claim this disproportionately impacts minority voters, especially since Alabama announced the closure of 31 driver’s license offices last year due to the state’s $200 million budget shortfall. Many of the locations were primarily in the Black Belt region of the state.
Frank Barragan, regional organizer for the Alabama Coalition of Immigrant Justice, said he has been working “basically nonstop” since November to get people registered to vote. So far, hundreds have been registered, already exceeding the number of new immigrant voters who signed up in 2014.
The ACIJ is a nonpartisan organization whose goal is to increase voter turnout and civic engagement among immigrants in Alabama. “We don’t tell people who to vote for,” Barragan said. “That’s their choice to make. We just want to give them the chance to do so.”
Voter participation has been low in Alabama in recent years. During the 2012 statewide and primary elections, the state saw a 24.42 percent turnout. The June 3, 2014 midterm elections saw only 21.6 percent.
Barragan said he is hopeful that this election will see an increased number of immigrant voters. “There are thousands of people who are eligible to vote who just haven’t registered or don’t know how to do so,” Barragan said. “Our goal is to reach those people, whether it’s knocking on their door or through the workshops we’ve been hosting.”
In addition to navigating the voter registration process, the ACIJ workshops also address “What rights people have if they are a victim of an immigration raid,” Barragan explained.
“My biggest question is, ‘Why?’ What problem is this supposedly trying to solve? There is very little evidence [of] voter fraud—especially among immigrants. We hear tales being told of undocumented voters voting. Who? How can they?” Barragan said.
ACIJ Executive Director Sarai Portillo expressed her concerns over the new regulations in a press release.
“Although ACIJ has campaigned for citizen participation in previous years, this time the coalition has a big barrier, trying not only to educate new voters on the importance of getting out to vote in such a crucial year as this one, but it also makes it harder to try to register new voters, with these new state regulations our community will be discouraged to register to vote,” Portillo said.
There is little evidence to support that widespread voter fraud has impacted the election process in Alabama or nationwide. The New York Times reported in 2007 that after a five-year investigation by the Bush administration, there was “virtually no evidence of any organized effort to skew federal elections.” Similar studies have made the same conclusions.
In 2014, an estimated 500,000 Alabamians did not have a photo ID, accounting for nearly 20 percent of those registered to vote, according to the New York University School of Law. Furthermore, the study found that 32 percent of Alabama’s voting-age population lived 10 or more miles away from the nearest license office, and that study was conducted in 2012, before the closure of 31 offices.
Barragan said the ACIJ will be teaming up with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People to address the situation with the closure of the DMV offices in the state.
During an election cycle that has been largely aimed towards immigration reform, from building a wall on the southern border, to banning Muslims from entering the country, Barragan said it is crucial to have a more engaged voter base among immigrants.
Last week, organizers with the Southern Poverty Law Center’s ‘On Campus Club’ gathered in Tuscaloosa to protest the state’s voter ID laws which they said impede equal opportunity to vote. The demonstration was also aimed at encouraging young people to be engaged and vote, explained SPLC On Campus coordinator Emily Mumford.
The youth vote in Alabama, which accounts for roughly 19 percent of the eligible electorate, Mumford said, had a low turnout in 2012 with only 40 percent of those voters showing up to the polls.
“It’s important to encourage and support youth registering to vote and also following through and going to the polls,” Mumford said.
In anticipation of this year’s election and the efforts to engage voters, the SPLC has released a poignant documentary that looks at the struggle for racial equality and voting rights in Alabama titled “Selma: The Bridge to the Ballot.”
“Our film tells the true story of the forgotten heroes of the historic struggle for equality – the courageous students and teachers who helped launch the voting rights movement in Selma,” said Lecia Brooks, SPLC outreach director, in a press release. “These community screenings remind viewers that the march for justice continues and that each of us can make a difference.”
While the SPLC has not released specific information regarding the changed voter ID laws in Alabama, Mumford said, “We are supporting the efforts of our student groups and other organizations that are working to make a difference on that front.”
Barragan said the ACIJ would continue its efforts to register as many new voters as possible before the presidential elections in November. “We’re doing everything we can to make sure every single person who is eligible to vote has a chance to let their voice be heard,” Barragan said. “We’re not going to sit still on this.”
In a recent op-ed that appeared in Weld, Birmingham Mayor William Bell likened the struggle of immigration to that of the Civil Rights Movement and called for renewed efforts to fight against institutionalized racism exhibited towards immigrants.
“People are unable to secure identification, forced to live in the shadows, and perpetually in fear of being deported. This law impacts the everyday lives of those trying their hardest to build a better future,” Bell wrote, noting the impact HB 56 still has on people in the state. “Alongside the fight to counter historic and systemic racism in this country, it is imperative that we continue to forge these links with the immigration movement, for our valiant brothers and sisters who face discrimination and exclusion as they seek refuge in this country.”