Remember that time in 2015 when Alabama shuttered driver’s license offices in several heavily black counties, potentially making it harder for some residents to get voter ID? After a national outcry, including a federal investigation and a lawsuit brought by voting rights advocates, the state ultimately reversed the closings.
Now, it looks like it was Rebekah Mason—a former top aide to Gov. Robert Bentley, with whom Bentley was having an affair at the time—who suggested the idea.
Of course, it’s worth noting: As governor, it’s Bentley who bears ultimate responsibility for approving the scheme, whoever suggested it.
Still, Mason “proposed closing multiple driver’s license offices throughout the State,” and asked Alabama’s top law enforcement agency to “put together a plan” for the closings, according to a detail in a bombshell 131-page report released Friday by the the investigator who’s leading state lawmakers’ effort to impeach Bentley.
The 74-year old Republican is alleged to have used state resources and abused his authority in trying to conceal the affair with Mason, 45. He’s expected to resign this week. Bentley’s wife of 50 years filed for divorce in 2015 after discovering evidence of the affair.
The controversy over the driver’s license office closures began in September 2015, when the state announced that license examiners would no longer work at 31 DMV offices. An Alabama newspaper columnist quickly noted that eight of the ten counties with the highest share of non-white residents, including the five counties that voted most strongly Democratic in 2012, saw their DMV offices shuttered.
The closings came two years after Alabama’s voter photo ID law went into effect. A lawsuit filed in October 2015 against the ID law by the NAACP Legal Defense Fund alleged that the closings added to the burden of obtaining an ID for some voters. That suit is scheduled to go to trial later this year. A local congresswoman, Rep. Terri Sewell, conveyed a similar message in a letter to the U.S. Justice Department, warning that the closings could disenfranchise poor, elderly, disabled, and black Alabamians.
An investigation into the closings by the U.S. Department of Transportation found that blacks in the state’s Black Belt region are underserved the the state’s DMV services. In response, Alabama agreed to expand driver’s license office hours.
The investigator’s report released Friday hints at the political agenda behind the decisions on which offices were closed. Spencer Collier, at the time the head of the state’s law enforcement agency which was tasked with drawing up the plan, told investigators he understood that Mason wanted it “rolled out in a way that had limited impact on Governor Bentley’s political allies.”
Collier, a key figure in the Bentley scandal, said he drew up a plan for the closings based on how many transactions the offices processed per year, rather than on political considerations. He also said he reported the plan to the Attorney General, because he was concerned it might violate the Voting Rights Act.
The closings were intended as a cost-saving measure to help close a budget shortfall of $100-200 million, but Collier has said they saved no more than $300,000.
Late Update, 6:28pm: AL.com reports that Bentley has resigned.