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Battle lines over voting laws grow

While North Carolina awaits a federal court ruling on whether its new election laws are legal, the battle over who gets to vote in other states appears to be escalating.

Take Alabama. Please.

Let it to be known, dear readers, that the “Heart of Dixie,” as Alabama continues to call itself, is where I spent most of my youth. I went to college there, made a lot of my early mistakes as a newspaper reporter there, and buried my parents in a church cemetery not far from the Tennessee River.

It is also a place that has established a new beachhead in the partisan struggle over elections. Let’s review.

In 2011, the Republican-controlled Alabama legislature adopted a requirement that residents needed government-issued photo identification to take part in state elections. (A similar provision takes effect in North Carolina next year, assuming that the federal judge now considering the new voting-day rules doesn’t strike it down.)

Only Alabama took it a step further.

The simplest ID for many of us to carry to the polling place is our driver’s license. Unless you live in Alabama, that is.

In what they describe as an effort to shore up their chronically anemic state budget, Alabama lawmakers recently closed 29 of their driver’s license offices. The heaviest hit area is the state’s “Black Belt,” which is named for the soil. It also happens to be made up of county after county of rural, African-American poor.

Of the 10 counties in Alabama with the highest percentage of non-white registered voters – read black and Democratic – eight no longer have a place to get a driver’s license. Residents of every county where 75 percent of the registered voters are black now have to drive somewhere else to get the most convenient photo ID they need to vote.

The question remains whether the closings were driven by hard-ball racial politics or a real need to cut government spending. In Alabama, where racial and political lines largely coincide, it’s always hard to tell.

What is clear is that the federal government, which has filed complaints against new voting laws in North Carolina and Texas, will almost certainly make a return trip to my home state. Believe me, the feds know the way.

Here’s why all that matters here.

The immediate future of North Carolina’s new election laws largely will swing on whether U.S. District Judge Thomas Schroeder of Winston-Salem believes our new laws are a legal effort by Republicans to eliminate voter fraud, a carefully worded subterfuge to disenfranchise Democratic voters, or something in between.

The judge’s decision could come any day. When it does, don’t expect North Carolina’s debate over Election Day to slow.

Thanks to Alabama, it may even run a little hotter.

Michael Gordon: 704-358-5095, @MikeGordonOBS