A federal judge has thrown out a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Alabama's voter ID law. U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler on Wednesday rejected arguments by civil rights groups that requiring a photo ID to vote is racially discriminatory, denies equal protection and violates the Voting Rights Act.
Greater Birmingham Ministries, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP, and several minority voters had sued Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill over the law passed in 2011 that requires absentee and in-person voters to show photo identification to cast a ballot. The plaintiffs said the requirement put an undue burden on minorities in part because the state had curtailed driver's license operations in several majority black counties.
Coogler agreed with the state's argument that it had important "regulatory interests" in passing the law, and that it was not intended to disenfranchise black voters. (A Republican supermajority in the legislature passed the law, and black voters overwhelmingly vote Democratic in Alabama). The state said the law was part of national trend to combat voter fraud, increase voter confidence and modernize elections.
Merrill maintained the case should be thrown out, arguing the law provided for a wide range of acceptable IDs and procedures for voters to obtain a valid photo voter identification card, including waiving fees for nondriver IDs. Additionally, the state has a mobile ID unit that provides free voter ID cards for people who lack transportation to other state offices to obtain one.
Coogler found that "even though Black and Latino registered voters are almost twice as likely as white voters to lack an acceptable photo ID, no one is prevented from voting." He says the state has made it easy to get an ID for voting purposes.
"The issue is not who has or does not have a photo ID at present," Coogler wrote. "The issue is whether the Photo ID Law denies members of a minority group the opportunity to reasonably get one, assuming they want one."
He found that "minorities do not have less opportunity to vote under Alabama Photo ID law because everyone has the same opportunity to obtain an ID."
He cited the case of plaintiff Elizabeth Ware, a 60-year-old African-American voter from Mobile County. Her nondriver photo ID was stolen in 2014, but she was turned away when she tried to replace it. After her deposition, the Secretary of State's mobile unit went to her residence to issue her a photo ID.
"The plaintiffs have simply failed to provide evidence that members of the protected class have less of an opportunity than others to participate in the political process," Coogler wrote. He cited rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals that upheld similar voter ID laws in Indiana and Georgia.
Alabama's Republican Attorney General Steve Marshall called it the right decision. "Alabama's voter identification law is one of the broadest in the nation with procedures in place to allow anyone who does not have a photo ID to obtain one," said Marshall in a statement.
NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund President Sherrilyn Ifill said the group is considering its next steps. "We have no intention of abandoning our commitment to protecting the rights of African-American voters in Alabama," said Ifill.
Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries said his group is deeply disappointed and expects an appeal. "We certainly believe we plaintiffs presented a strong case considering that over 100,000 people lacked photo ID, and still face significant burdens in obtaining it," he said.