In Alabama, Clin­ton re­bukes gover­nor on vot­ing rights for black Amer­i­cans

The Washington Post Sunday - - POLITICS & THE NATION - BY VANESSA WIL­LIAMS vanessa.wil­liams@wash­post.com

hoover, ala. — Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial front-run­ner Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton came to Alabama on Satur­day and waded into the na­tional de­bate over voter rights, crit­i­ciz­ing Repub­li­can lead­ers in this state and oth­ers for ID laws that she said have made vot­ing harder for peo­ple of color and young peo­ple, two groups crit­i­cal to her chances of win­ning the pres­i­dency.

Clin­ton slammed Alabama Gov. Robert Bent­ley (R) for clos­ing 31 driver-li­cens­ing of­fices in ru­ral, mostly black ar­eas, elim­i­nat­ing a source for the gov­ern­ment-is­sued photo ID that is now re­quired to vote in Alabama.

“This is wrong,” Clin­ton said. “Fifty years af­ter Rosa Parks sat and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. marched and John Lewis bled, it is hard to be­lieve that we are back hav­ing this same de­bate” about vot­ing rights for black Amer­i­cans.

The an­nounce­ment of the clo­sures was met with swift con­dem­na­tion by Democrats and vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates in Alabama and across the coun­try. On Fri­day, Bent­ley par­tially re­versed the de­ci­sion, say­ing that the of­fices would open in the af­fected ar­eas once a month. Clin­ton said that still wasn’t good enough.

“I’m proud of ev­ery­one in Alabama who leapt into ac­tion to fight this mis­guided de­ci­sion to close those driver’s li­cense of­fices, and you’ve got peo­ple all over this na­tion who are root­ing for and stand­ing with you,” Clin­ton said. “And it’s time for your gover­nor and the leg­is­la­ture not only to lis­ten to their con­stituents, but to lis­ten to their con­science about what it means to be a leader in our coun­try.”

The clo­sures stoked sev­eral days of crit­i­cism from vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates and was the sub­ject of na­tional news cov­er­age and com­men­tary. Rep. Terri A. Sewell, the only Demo­cratic mem­ber of Alabama’s con­gres­sional del­e­ga­tion, called for a Jus­tice Depart­ment in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Last week, the Rev. Jesse L. Jack­son met with Bent­ley.

The gover­nor has ar­gued that the clo­sures were nec­es­sary to re­duce costs, and he re­jected al­le­ga­tions that he was seek­ing to dis­en­fran­chise black vot­ers.

“To sug­gest the clo­sure of the driver’s li­cense of­fices is a racial is­sue is sim­ply not true, and to sug­gest oth­er­wise should be con­sid­ered an ef­fort to pro­mote a po­lit­i­cal agenda,” Bent­ley said in a state­ment.

Anne Per­maloff, pres­i­dent of the League of Women Vot­ers of Alabama, said she does not be­lieve that Repub­li­can state law­mak­ers were try­ing to hurt black vot­ers. But, she said, given the state’s his­tory of voter dis­crim­i­na­tion and in­tim­i­da­tion, the gover­nor should have known bet­ter.

“I would think they would have thought a lit­tle more about it. We just had the ‘Selma’ movie, and the reen­act­ment of the Selma march and all the pub­lic­ity about the an­niver­sary of the Vot­ing Rights Act,” Per­maloff said. “But they seemed to con­cen­trate their full at­ten­tion sim­ply on sav­ing money. I hon­estly think they were shocked when the re­ac­tion hap­pened.”

That re­ac­tion sug­gests that the racially charged de­bate over vot­ing rights will grow louder as the two sides gear up for the 2016 pres­i­den­tial race, the first na­tional elec­tion since a Supreme Court de­ci­sion that sig­nif­i­cantly weak­ened the Vot­ing Rights Act. The case that led to the rul­ing orig­i­nated in Shelby County, a sub­urb of Birm­ing­ham, which sued for re­lief from Sec­tion 5 of the act. Un­der that por­tion, states with a his­tory of dis­crim­i­nat­ing against mi­nor­ity vot­ers need to get ap­proval, or “pre-clear­ance,” from the Jus­tice Depart­ment be­fore chang­ing vot­ing laws and pro­ce­dures.

But Chief Jus­tice John G. Roberts Jr., speak­ing for the ma­jor­ity in the 5-to-4 rul­ing, ar­gued that “our coun­try has changed” and such pro­tec­tions against racial dis­crim­i­na­tion were no longer needed.

Repub­li­can-led state gov­ern­ments moved for­ward with a flurry of laws call­ing for strict vote rID re­quire­ments and do­ing away with same-day reg­is­tra­tion. Demo­cratic Party ac­tivists have ar­gued that the laws are bur­den­some and con­fus­ing. For in­stance, in Texas, a gun per­mit is ac­cept­able to vote, but not a col­lege ID.

Pro­po­nents say the laws

are aimed at curb­ing voter fraud. But the Jus­tice Depart­ment and le­gal ex­perts say that a mi­nus­cule num­ber of peo­ple show up at the polls to im­per­son­ate an­other voter.

Op­po­nents of such laws say that the real in­ten­tion is to sup­press par­tic­i­pa­tion by peo­ple of color and young vot­ers, who tend not to sup­port the GOP.

Clin­ton, in her com­ments Satur­day to about 875 peo­ple at the Wyn­frey Ho­tel in Hoover, a sub­urb of Birm­ing­ham, took swipes at some of the Repub­li­can pres­i­den­tial can­di­dates, not­ing that former Florida gover­nor Jeb Bush and Sen. Marco Ru­bio (Fla.) have dis­missed the ar­gu­ments of vot­ing rights ad­vo­cates. And she crit­i­cized Ohio Gov. John Ka­sich for curb­ing early vot­ing, an elec­tion fea­ture of which a large per­cent­age of African Amer­i­cans took ad­van­tage.

“For ev­ery Repub­li­can gover­nor work­ing to roll back vot­ing rights, there are Amer­i­cans de­ter­mined to keep march­ing for­ward,” Clin­ton said. She called for Congress to pass the Vot­ing Rights Ad­vance­ment Act, which would re­store the pre-clear­ance clause.

“My bill!” Sewell shouted from the au­di­ence.

“And it’s your con­gress­woman’s bill!” Clin­ton ac­knowl­edged.

Clin­ton also called for ex­pand­ing early vot­ing and au­to­matic voter reg­is­tra­tion for all cit­i­zens when they turn 18.

Sen. Bernie San­ders (I-Vt.), who also is seek­ing the Demo­cratic nom­i­na­tion, rou­tinely crit­i­cizes voter ID laws. He did not at­tend Satur­day’s event in Alabama, but he said in a state­ment: “Repub­li­can cow­ards all across the coun­try, in­clud­ing Alabama, are very clearly try­ing to win elec­tions by sup­press­ing the vote and mak­ing it harder for low-in­come peo­ple, mi­nori­ties, young peo­ple and se­niors to vote. That has to change. Any­one 18 years of age or older should be au­to­mat­i­cally reg­is­tered to vote.”

Al­though Alabama hasn’ t voted for a Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial can­di­date since Jimmy Carter in 1976, Clin­ton said she was build­ing an or­ga­ni­za­tion in the state to help elect Democrats in of­fices up and down the bal­lot. The state’ s Demo­cratic pri­mary is March 1.

Clin­ton also seemed ea­ger to let the au­di­ence know that she and Pres­i­dent Obama had moved on be­yond their hard-fought pri­mary bat­tle in 2008, which left some black vot­ers an­gry at Clin­to­nand her hus­band, former pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton.

She talked about how Obama twice asked her to be his sec­re­tary of state and she twice de­clined, but he told her he would not take no for an an­swer. She said that when she men­tioned this to her hus­band, he quipped, “You know, I asked you twice to marry me, and you said, ‘No.’ ”

The crowd cracked up.

MARK AL­MOND/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial front-run­ner Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton speaks to the Alabama Demo­cratic Con­fer­ence. She crit­i­cized the state’s gover­nor for al­low­ing clo­sures of ru­ral driver-li­cens­ing of­fices.

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