US Department of Transportation to investigate Alabama drivers license bureau closures

The US Department of Transportation announced today that it will investigate the State of Alabama over its decision to close roughly half of its drivers license bureaus earlier this year — a move that disproportionately affected black citizens.

Red counties will now be devoid of drivers license bureaus, via Kyle Whitmire / AL.com

Red counties will now be devoid of drivers license bureaus, via Kyle Whitmire / AL.com

As USDOT wrote in a statement, they will be investigating whether the state’s actions “violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color or national origin in programs and activities receiving federal assistance.”

“Today, the U.S. Department of Transportation is making it clear that Title VI is not optional and that we will work to make sure all of its components are enforced,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. “Driver License Offices offer essential services to the American people, including providing thousands in Alabama with a method of identification. It is critical that these services be free of discrimination, and serve the people of the state fairly and equally.”

As Departmental Civil Rights Acting Director Stephanie Jones added, “Our concern rests in the possibility that the State’s closure of driver license offices disproportionately constrains the ability of some residents to secure driving privileges, register personal and commercial vehicles, and obtain proper identification –a critical requirement for access to essential activities such as opening a bank account and voting.”

Any organization that administers state programs with federal assistance is subject to Title VI’s requirements, and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency ALEA, the department responsible for administering the state’s motor vehicle laws, is no exception. Since ALEA receives “substantial Federal assistance” from USDOT, it is subject to federal nondiscrimination standards — standards that could very well have been violated when it chose to close 34 drivers license bureaus. As AL.com’s John Archibald wrote when the closures were announced, eight of the ten counties with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters in the state are now without a drivers license bureau and every resident of a county that is at least 75 percent African-American will have go to another county to obtain their drivers license.

Alabama, via Shutterstock

Alabama, via Shutterstock

This is the latest in a string of voting rights issues for the state of Alabama. In October, facing a separate federal lawsuit, the state admitted that it had never been in full compliance with the 1993 National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) and would be updating its processes accordingly. Last week, the NAACP filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s photo ID requirement for voting. The lawsuit cited, among other things, the same DMV closures that sparked this USDOT investigation. Alabama Governor Robert Bentley defended the photo ID law by citing the state’s newfound compliance with the NVRA — a total dodge that suggests he doesn’t feel too confident about the law’s chances in court.

Alabama is now juggling voting rights issues on at least three fronts at the federal level. As it turns out, when you operate in a democracy and you make it harder for specific classes of people to vote, the voters take notice and appeal over your head. The federal government’s power to guarantee voting rights may be more limited than it was a few years ago, but overt discrimination still doesn’t fly. It will be interesting to see what USDOT’s investigation finds.

 

 


Jon Green graduated from Kenyon College with a B.A. in Political Science and high honors in Political Cognition. He worked as a field organizer for Congressman Tom Perriello in 2010 and a Regional Field Director for President Obama's re-election campaign in 2012. Jon writes on a number of topics, but pays especially close attention to elections, religion and political cognition. Follow him on Twitter at @_Jon_Green, and on Google+. .

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