As it turns out ... Bentley's driver's license closures were racial, after all

All you had to do was look at a map to see it.

When the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced the closure of 31 driver's license offices in 2015, I printed out a blank map of the state's 67 counties and began coloring in the ones that no longer had a place to get the most common form of photo ID.

Rural Alabama had been hit hard by the closures, but especially the Black Belt -- the region of Alabama that takes its name first from the color of its rich soil but also from the concentration of African-Americans who live there. A few economic development projects aside, the Black Belt has always suffered the worst from Alabama's sins, leaving its citizens with the least means the farthest distance from basic necessities, be it a job, simple trip to a grocery store, utilities like broadband internet.

And now a place to get a driver's license.

Here's the crude little map I drew after Bentley's driver's license closures. The counties in red were left with no offices. Kyle Whitmire | kwhitmire@al.com 

To make matters worse, the closures came on the heels of Alabama requiring photo ID at the polls -- a change the state made nearly the second the United States Supreme Court took it out from underneath the watchful stare of the United States Justice Department and the Voting Rights Act.

Again, all you had to do was look at a map to see this would be a problem, but Gov. Robert Bentley evidently didn't bother. He'd been eager to punish lawmakers for not raising taxes and patching the hole in the state's General Fund budget, and so he took out his frustrations on those who had already suffered the most in the state and stacked another rock on their mountain of challenges.

And for what? We now know the driver's license closures saved little money -- somewhere between $200,000 and $300,000, tops, according to Bentley's former ALEA secretary Spencer Collier. The routine shortfalls in the General Fund budget typically range from $100 million to $200 million. The closures didn't even scratch that. They were a naked act of political vengeance.

So I made a crude digital version of my colored paper map and published it here. My colleague John Archibald looked at census and elections data and found more ugly facts. In the 10 counties with the highest proportion of minorities, the state closed driver's license offices in eight. The other two remained open because it might be too much to explain, I suppose, for Alabama not to have driver's license offices in Montgomery or Selma.

Maybe the governor didn't intend to target minority citizens with the closures, but ultimately his intent is beside the point. The effect was the same, and the reaction was as swift as it was predictable. Alabama again became a national embarrassment. The NAACP sued and the United States Department of Transportation investigated.

Last month, the latter of those two legal actions concluded.

"Based on its investigation, DOT has concluded that African Americans residing in the Black Belt region of Alabama disproportionately underserved by ALEA's driver licensing services, causing a disparate and adverse impact on the basis of race," the department said.

ALEA had already buckled and reopened many of the offices but for fewer hours. However, under an agreement struck between the state and federal agencies, ALEA agreed to add more hours of service to the Black Belt offices.

Maybe now that everything has been put back the way it was before, there's no longer any harm. But we shouldn't forget that all of this was avoidable.

And what was the cost? The legal fees alone will diminish -- if they haven't already exceeded -- any paltry savings.

All of this was predictable. All Bentley had to do was look at a map.

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