NAACP Legal Defense Fund Files Federal Suit Over Alabama Voter ID Law

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Last week, after celebrating the 60th anniversary of Rosa Parks’ refusal to give up her seat on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama — an act that ignited the Civil Rights Movement — lawyers from the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund Inc.,  Covington & Burling, LLP and Alabama attorney Ed Still have filed a federal lawsuit challenging Alabama’s photo voter ID law.

The lawsuit was brought on behalf of Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP.

The complaint alleges that Alabama enacted a photo ID law that the state’s own initial analysis showed would disfranchise more than a quarter of a million registered voters, a disproportionate number of whom are black and Latino, in violation of the U.S. Constitution and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

The lawsuit alleges that the photo ID law is one of three intentionally discriminatory measures passed by the 2011-12 Alabama Legislature. The other two — the state’s legislative redistricting plans and House Bill 56 — have already been successfully challenged in federal court.

The lawsuit also comes shortly after Alabama’s decision to close 31 DMV offices, which the plaintiff’s allege has made it much more difficult for Black and Latino voters to get driver’s licenses, the most common form of photo ID.

“The state’s deliberate decision to enforce this discriminatory photo ID law, followed by the DMV office closures, has compelled us to take action,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of LDF. “It is appalling that, 60 years after Rosa Parks’ courageous protest in Montgomery and 50 years after voting rights activists marched in Selma, the Alabama Legislature continues to pass laws that are designed to deprive people of color of their basic civil rights.”

LDF lawyers represented Montgomery residents challenging segregated buses and the Selma marchers.

The photo ID law was passed in 2011 when Alabama was still subject to Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. Section 5’s “preclearance” requirement prevented Alabama from enforcing the photo ID law until the state could prove to a federal court or the U.S. Department of Justice that the law was non-discriminatory.

But, Alabama never submitted the photo ID law for Section 5 preclearance.

Instead, the plaintiffs allege the state intentionally delayed the law’s enforcement to prevent it from being blocked by Section 5.

On June 26, 2015, however, a day after the U.S. Supreme Court’s devastating Shelby County, Alabama v. Holder ruling ended the protections of Section 5 preclearance, Alabama announced it would enforce the photo ID law in the 2014 elections.

Since the law took effect, LDF has been working with Greater Birmingham Ministries and the Alabama NAACP to urge the state to lessen  what the groups call “discriminatory burdens” caused by the photo ID law.

In letters to Alabama officials, LDF warned the DMV closures would make photo IDs less available to people of color, and that a portion of the photo ID law is being interpreted as an illegal “voucher” requirement—a type of voter “test” banned by the Voting Rights Act.

The letters also noted the law led to hundreds of ballots going uncounted in 2014.

“Alabama has rejected even modest suggestions to lessen the photo ID law’s impact,” noted Deuel Ross, the lead LDF attorney in the case. “Last year, for example, Alabama officials ruled that people could not vote using the photo IDs issued to them by public housing authorities.”

While black people make up only about 25 percent of Alabama’s total population, they are 71 percent of the state’s federal public housing residents.

Nationally, 25 percent of black people and 16 percent of Latinos lack a government-issued photo ID, compared to just 8 percent of whites.

The lawsuit seeks to block the photo ID law and voucher requirement. In addition, the lawsuit asks the court to impose preclearance obligations under the Voting Rights Act, which would again require Alabama to seek federal approval before enforcing any changes to its voting laws.

Read a backgrounder, timeline and FAQ in this case.

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