Opinion | How HB 129 could dismantle voter suppression

It’s time to end the current practice of driver’s license suspension. 


UA Vote Everywhere

Last semester, in the run-up to the 2020 election, our organization Vote Everywhere UA worked to ensure that the digital ACT Card was accepted as a valid form of photo voter ID. We learned that for students without driver’s licenses, the ACT Card is a vital form of identification. 

But not all Alabamians have access to a secondary form of ID. Especially for those Alabamians facing systemic over-policing, racial profiling and persistent poverty, driver’s licenses are being revoked for a range of non-driving related offenses. Alabama law currently enables driver’s licenses to be suspended for a multitude of reasons, including failure to pay traffic fines and for some drug offenses. But because Alabama has limited public transportation options – meaning that one has to be able to drive to access food, employment and other crucial services – those whose licenses have been suspended often don’t stop driving. These drivers then find themselves with additional fees, court debt and potential criminal charges for driving with a suspended license. 

Suspended licenses have dangerous effects. According to a 2018 report by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, 89% of people with suspended licenses report being “forced to choose between basic needs… and paying what they owed.” Nearly one third of people with suspended licenses report committing additional crimes—often more serious crimes than those for which their licenses are suspended—in order to pay off their tickets and reinstate their licenses. And almost half of people polled report taking out high-interest payday loans in order to pay off their tickets.

Those whose licenses are revoked for unpaid court debt can apply for an Hardship License, a temporary measure that grants drivers limited privileges when they are unable to obtain alternative transportation. However, these licenses do little to address the true underlying issues of driver’s license suspension. Those with Hardship Licenses must pay for the costly insurance rates of high-risk drivers, representing yet another barrier to paying off traffic tickets and obtaining a regular license. This unreliable measure proves the necessity of more comprehensive and effective legislation to remedy the effects of driver’s license suspensions.

There is a solution to this injustice that would ensure that legal access to Alabama’s roads is no longer treated as a privilege given and taken away at the whim of the state: we are calling on legislators in Montgomery to pass HB 129, a bill currently before the House Judiciary Committee that would bring Alabama in line with other states and allow license suspension only for dangerous driving offenses. HB 129 will end the system which punishes poor Alabamian voters, hindering their access both to valid photo ID and to the very ability to drive to their polling place. 

And, though we care deeply and principally about the implication for voters and voting rights, access to the ballot is not the only benefit of HB 129. In addition to debt accumulation, the suspension of driver’s licenses results in job losses. 

As people whose driver’s licenses are suspended lack reliable transportation and valid identification, their struggle to find and keep jobs prevents them from paying off a seemingly endless amount of debt. This job loss represents a great economic threat to the state of Alabama and cannot be justified under the current practice of driver’s license suspensions.

Individuals who cannot pay off traffic debt may also be jailed upon arrival at court without the necessary funds. This time spent in jail is severely detrimental to family stability, as “breadwinners” are forced to spend time in jail instead of tending to their children’s physical and emotional needs. The endangerment of children represents an imminent threat to society that is entirely avoidable. 

Given the nature of driver’s license suspension to result in voter suppression, slowed economic progress and jail time for minor offenses, the Alabama Legislature must act now. HB 129 will finally reduce driver’s license suspensions to their ultimate purpose: to deter dangerous driving and make the state of Alabama a safer place to live. By doing so, the bill will address the systemic injustices that have long impacted its citizens. 

While HB 129 is an encouraging and necessary reform to the cause of voting rights, the systemic issues it addresses remain in effect. HB 129 remedies just one of many voting barriers within the state of Alabama. In the 2021 legislative session, a number of voting reform bills have been proposed. As students dedicated to the accessibility and ease of the voting process, we urge Alabama’s legislators to prioritize the rights of its citizens and vote for the preservation of this vital institution. By enacting these reforms, starting with HB 129, the state may improve ballot access and at last achieve a true democracy. 

UA Vote Everywhere is an initiative of The Andrew Goodman Foundation aimed at training college students to register, educate and mobilize voters.