Mobilizing Black Voters in Alabama: Who Does it and Why It’s Become Harder

For many decades the most significant organization in Alabama for mobilizing black turnout has been the Alabama Democratic Conference (ADC).  The ADC goes back deep into Alabama’s history, even pre-dating the Voting Rights Act.  It was founded after the successful 1960 challenge, in the Supreme Court case of Gomillion v. Lightfoot, to Tuskegee’s attempt to re-draw its municipal boundaries into a 28-sided “uncouth” figure that put virtually every black resident outside the city’s boundaries.

Having won that case, Dr. Gomillion then helped found the ADC to help mobilize and organize black political participation.  The unusually long existence of the ADC has given it a recognition and stature built up over years, particularly among black voters, that has made it a central player in get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts.

Successful organizations for GOTV drives are less likely to be pop-up vehicles  created overnight for a particular election, because they rely on the credibility that comes from years of having developed personal relationships and the infrastructure to get black voters to the polls, particularly in rural areas.

But  the ADC’s capacity to do that in tomorrow’s election and going forward has been dramatically undermined by a recent Alabama law that bans any political group from contributing financially to support any other political group for any purpose.  Given the economic position of many blacks in Alabama, the ADC charges membership dues of only $15/year, and less than half its financial resources traditionally came from these dues.  More than half its financing for things like GOTV efforts came from organizations representing teachers and trial lawyers, which shared ADC’s political aims.

When Alabama banned political groups from providing financial support to other political groups, it cut off nearly half the money ADC received for its GOTV efforts.  To the extent Alabama had any genuine problems with its campaign-finance laws, there were less sweepingly overbroad ways of dealing with them, rather than a complete bar on the ability of any group to contribute financially to any other group. The much more comprehensive federal campaign laws do not contain anything like this kind of flat prohibition on political groups working together on matters like GOTV efforts.

I thought Alabama’s law was an unconstitutional infringement on political association and political speech, and I represented ADC (along with John Tanner, Ed Still, and Perkins Coie) in its effort to get the Supreme Court to address these issues.  But the Court declined to hear the case.  (Only one other State, Missouri, has a similar bar to Alabama’s on political groups supporting each other with financial contributions, and a federal district court held Missouri’s law unconstitutional after the Supreme Court declined to hear the Alabama case).

Tomorrow’s election is the first major one under the law that bans ADC from receiving money from other political groups to fund its GOTV efforts.  The question of how many black voters turn out for the Democratic candidate, Doug Jones, is of course one of the factors that will be most critical to the outcome.

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