MONTGOMERY, Ala. — In a change of course, Gov. Robert Bentley announced that Alabama would return driver’s license examiners to 31 rural counties.
A statement from the governor’s office Friday night said an examiner would spend at least one day each month in each of the counties slated to lose part-time examiners under budget cuts announced by the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency at the end of last month. The schedule and timetable of the return was not immediately clear.
The moves set off a national controversy, with many expressing concerns that people in the affected counties, particularly black voters, would be unable to get identification required to vote. On Friday, Bentley denied any intention to deprive people of their voting rights.
“I recognize the closure of the 31 driver’s license offices affects mostly rural areas of the state,” Bentley said. “To suggest the closure of the driver’s license offices is a racial issue is simply not true, and to suggest otherwise should be considered an effort to promote a political agenda.”
The affected offices issued or renewed less than 9,000 driver’s licenses and identification cards in 2014; the counties had just over 551,000 active or inactive voters that year.
The totals were slightly higher in the 12 Black Belt counties that lost examiners: There, the offices issued or renewed 2,702 licenses and identifications in counties with 128,788 active and registered voters, or about 2.1 percent of voters.
Legislators in the counties said any difficulty accessing the ballot would be a problem. Democratic U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell asked the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the closings, and met with Bentley on Thursday on the issue. Bentley had earlier met with members of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus and the Rev. Jesse Jackson on the examiner withdrawals.
Sewell said in a statement the moves were “encouraging” but said the state needs to address the impact of budget cuts on rural Alabama.
ALEA said an $11 million cut to its budget, combined with staffing shortages in its district offices, required the removal of the part-time examiners.
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