COVID Hit Alabama Hard. State Officials Funneled CARES Act Relief to Donors.

Now in its seventh month, Covid-19 still snakes across America. It first attacked densely packed, blighted areas like New York City and Chicago, along with prisons, immigrant jails, meat slaughterhouses, and nursing homes. It then swerved south and west — again to heavily populated areas in Florida, Texas, and Arizona. In all these areas, frontline “essential” workers and those living with them were the hardest hit.

In the second month, the virus stormed into insulated American towns well off the beaten path. There, too, the virus hammered the elderly, poor, and working poor, as it did in Selma, Alabama, which is 80 percent Black and where poverty has been a staple for generations. When Covid-19 cases started to slow nationwide in mid-August (until schools reopened and cases reescalated), the numbers in Selma still pushed upward. Oddly named the “Queen City,” Selma — the seat of Dallas County — has the distinction of being the poorest city in a state that is the fourth poorest in the country.

Except for a few moments in U.S. history, Selma has not been center stage. It made national headlines in 1965 when state troopers battered voting rights marchers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge, which spans the Alabama River. It was news again in July 2020, when John Lewis, Georgia’s long-term congressman and one of the 1965 victims (and heroes), died. However, it is less known that in the 19th century, Selma was the center of the South’s cotton trade and one of the arms manufacturing and shipbuilding hubs of the Confederacy. It was also the site of at least 19 lynchings from 1877 until 1943. Because these were common occurrences (more than 350 are documented in Alabama during this period alone), they got little national coverage. Locally, they were celebrated. Some were even public gatherings.

Details about the man for whom the bridge was named speak volumes about Alabama’s white power structure. Edmund Winston Pettus, an Alabama native son, was a Civil War general and U.S. senator from 1897 to 1907, when some of the worst Jim Crow laws were passed. He was also a KKK Grand Dragon. More telling, the bridge was not built in the late 1800s or early 1900s; rather, it was erected and named for Pettus in 1940, when Southern white practices were still openly paraded.

When Selma was home to an Air Force base from 1940 until 1977, the $30 million annual payroll kept local businesses and jobs afloat. When it closed, the economy crashed. Today, Selma — with a population of 17,000 — is something of a ghost town, with widespread litter, empty lots, dilapidated housing, systemic joblessness, huge numbers of arrests, boarded-up buildings, and a main street where nothing much happens, With the city’s annual budget at $17.4 million and a decimated tax base, nothing much can.

Even the Dallas County jail (located in Selma) goes without. Built to hold 92 inmates, it now warehouses over 150. “It’s like a plantation system,” says Faya Rose Toure, a former municipal court judge, activist, and founder of the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee. “Prisoners get one uniform — an orange jumpsuit — which the jail washes once a week. They’re not allowed to bring their own clothes or visit with families (even before the virus, visits were by video). They also weren’t given masks until I complained to a judge. After this, each man got exactly one, and they never got hand sanitizers or Covid-19 tests.” Soap and deodorant are in such short supply that the LIFT Ministries, a Catholic service group, donated them to the jail on Father’s Day and, along with the Blackbelt Wellness Center, bestowed more in late August.

Sheriff Michael Granthum, who runs the jail, told the Selma Times Journal (STJ) on June 4 that “there’s a rumor going around that the Dallas County Jail has COVID-19 cases. That’s not true.” Toure says she has clients there who say he’s lying. To find out and learn how the jail has handled the virus, I tried to interview Sheriff Granthum and Deputy Warden Quintin Stevens. Neither answered my calls.

Selma’s poverty is pernicious. In the fall of 2019, when the U.S. economy was on a roll and unemployment was at 3.7 percent, Selma’s rate was 7 percent. But even that hides the real rate, since half of working-age Selmans — from 18 to 64 — aren’t even in the workforce because of bad health and disabilities or are discouraged workers who’ve dropped out of the labor market, no longer searching for nonexistent jobs. Thus, median household income is about $21,000 — which means half have far less — while the national median figure is $59,000.

As Covid-19 shuttered the U.S. economy last April and May and unemployment wreaked havoc across the country, the national rate was 12 percent — but Selma’s had soared to 23 percent. By late summer, when the U.S. rate had dropped to 8.4 percent and Alabama’s overall rate was 5.6 percent, Selma’s remained a stubborn 13 percent.

Nevertheless, Alabama Republican Congressman Bradley Byrne, whose district abuts Dallas County, voted to stop the $600 federal unemployment weekly benefit. Why? “The economy is better and cases are down” he wrote in the June 12 Selma Times Journal. Yet on the same day, Dallas County had 37 more Covid-19 cases than two days earlier, for a total of 406 cases. One week later, there were over 600. By late September, there were 1,800.

Byrne also says the $600 federal check that Congress approved to help unemployed Americans is not constructive. “I drive around and I see many ‘help wanted’ and ‘now hiring’ signs . . . so we must ask do we need to keep paying the extra $600 a week to those drawing unemployment? Have we created a disincentive to work?” he asks in a July 16 STJ editorial. However, the U.S. Department of Labor calculates that the 1.5 million workers now considered long-term unemployed could swell to five million by early 2021.

In fact, all of Selma’s numbers are numbing. Joe O’Quinn, communications director for the Edmundite Brothers Mission, located on the city’s main street, says, “In Selma, some think $10.10 an hour is what you need to pay rent and feed a family. But you can’t live on it. And most people don’t earn even near that. Usually they get $7.25 to $8.25 an hour, and most jobs are part-time” — such as at the nearby Walmart.

“People live on the edge and have no buffer to fall back on. When something like the virus hits, those who had jobs join those already in poverty. Their usual unemployment checks, without the extra $600, are only about $200 a week, since they’re based on their wages,” O’Quinn says.

Thus, a whopping 38 percent of Selma’s residents and 64 percent of its children live at or below the U.S. poverty line. Life expectancy is the same as in Bangladesh. “Many people have early strokes and heart attacks, even at 42,” says another Mission staff member (who asked for anonymity). “Money is so scarce that when we asked farmers to open up some land near Selma for the poor to cultivate, those who would have benefited couldn’t afford the seeds,” she adds.

Why don’t young Selmans join the military, which, for many low-income Americans, is a way out of poverty? “They can’t. You have to be healthy, and they’re not. And they don’t have any skills,” says the Mission staff member.

According to Father Richard Myhalyk, the Edmundite mission priest, “people don’t have enough to eat. The high school football team couldn’t win games because the boys were so skinny. Everything you see is the product of generations of poverty.”

Given the food shortage, private groups try to fill the gaps. O’Quinn said before Covid-19 came to town, “the Mission served 5,000 to 6,000 meals a week, some of which were to people with jobs. Now we make 7,000 or 8,000 meals.” Until schools were shut, they also gave children a bag of food to take home for the weekends.

But even these contributions aren’t enough. Thus, since April, the Dallas County Public School System has given lunches to children from Monday to Friday at five locations, and the Dallas County Feeding Program passed out 10,000 meals from June 8 to July 10, twice as many as in 2019. Various church groups, like the Christian Outreach Alliance, also have feeding programs.

The dearth of food is just one problem. Public transport is another, since Selma has none. And because the poor can’t afford cars, they have to pay someone to drive them to work or to buy groceries. It also means they can’t take jobs that are outside the town.

Housing is another struggle. Father Myhalyk says, “One woman I know paid $100 a month for a one-room apartment with holes in the walls and no running water. We thought we’d fix it, but we learned that the landlord would have raised her rent. So we managed to find her another place and got her some clothes.”

To worsen matters, Selma’s sales tax, even on food, is 10 percent; (by comparison, New York City’s is 8.8 percent and Washington D.C.’s is 6 percent). The priest says “the system has failed its poor. When the Department of Human Resources runs out of money, it calls on the Mission to help.”

Then there’s the fear factor — and not just about the virus. I wanted to interview workers to learn if their employers were giving hazard pay along with masks, gloves, and sick pay when people became ill, or if they arranged social distancing and disinfected the workplace. But I hit a wall of silence.

Of the 12 people I called, only two answered. “If we talk to you, we lose our jobs,” one woman said. Although I assured her I wouldn’t identify her, she said, “It’s a risk I can’t take.” The other woman who would talk is employed at Walmart. “Although we were considered ‘essential’ workers, we didn’t get hazard pay. Instead, Walmart sent us one check for either $300 or $500 depending on whether we worked full or part-time.” Since Walmart mostly hires part-time workers, $300 was the norm.

The story is essentially the same at the other six or seven largest employers. For example, American Apparel, which manufactures U.S. military uniforms, gives sick pay to workers if they have to quarantine — but only their base pay of $8.25 an hour — not the $11 to $14 an hour they make if they sew over their quotas. However, the company doesn’t pay for family leave if an employee has to care for a sick child or parent. Nor has it offered hazard pay. And it doesn’t give paid vacations.

American Apparel workers — nearly all women — walked off the job in late April. “We were furious. They didn’t tell us that some co-workers had gotten sick or give us masks and gloves. I was especially worried because my daughter has asthma,” one woman told me. “We protested for two days while the company cleaned the place. When they told us to come back, some of us still thought they could clean it better. But if we stayed out, they said ‘Don’t bother coming back.’” Alabama’s Department of Labor also weighed in: If the women didn’t return, they wouldn’t get unemployment benefits.

Then there’s health insurance — or, more accurately, the lack of it. Like most Selma businesses, American Apparel doesn’t offer it. Harvest Select, a catfish de-boning plant with about 300 “fish pickers,” is located a few miles outside the city. According to Curtis Gray, who’s with the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, “there’s no sick pay although, in theory, their jobs come with health benefits. But workers have to contribute $36 a week. Since most of them work 27 to 30 hours a week for $8.50 an hour, they can’t afford it. Also, they have to sign waivers that they won’t sue the company if they’re injured — which is a real risk, since they work with sharp knives on an assembly line, de-boning six catfish a minute.”

At International Paper, Selma’s largest employer, one worker said several people got the virus, but they weren’t given sick pay. Instead, they had to take vacation days.

Fear also means wages start and stay low. Gray says, “My union tried to organize Harvest Select, but after 50 fish-pickers signed cards to hold an election, the owners threatened they’d close the plant if the union won. We needed to get 100 to sign, but we couldn’t, because they were afraid. So it fizzled out.” Thus, as elsewhere in the South, unions are usually absent. And the workers’ fear of losing their jobs is paralyzing.

Covid-19 Case Numbers Move Upward

In late March, Covid-19 arrived, and the toll had to be big — given people’s poor health and weak immune systems. But Governor Kay Ivey’s actions didn’t help. On April 30, when Dallas County had only 37 cases, she launched Phase I to reopen retail stores and beaches. Though she added social distancing restrictions, by May 12, cases had nearly tripled, to 108. Unfazed, Ivey started Phase II that same day, reopening restaurants, bars, breweries, athletic facilities, barber shops, nail salons, and tattoo parlors. And on May 17, she told churches they could resume indoor services. Ten days later, cases had more than doubled again, to 250. Dallas County’s infection rate is 312 per 100,000, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention considers high.

According to John Zippert, a weekly newspaper publisher and chairman of the board of a nonprofit group that runs a small hospital and nursing home in nearby Greene County, the virus exposed the “intersection of race, poverty, and health. If you’re black and poor, your illnesses get worse and worse because you don’t have health insurance and you can’t afford to see a doctor or buy medicine. To make prescriptions last longer, you use half the dose you’re supposed to take or take it every other day.”

Although many Americans think the nation’s poor get health care under Medicaid, that’s not true in Alabama. Zippert explains that his state and Texas have the strictest Medicaid eligibility limits in the country. “People earn too much to qualify.”

What’s too much? According to Robyn Hyden, executive director of Alabama Arise, an anti-poverty coalition, “Single women and men who have one child are not eligible for adult coverage if they earn over $3,100 a year. If they have two children, the cap inches up to $3,900 a year.

“The cap is higher for pregnant women, who can earn up to $18,000. But coverage ends once they give birth. Alabama’s Medicaid program does cover children up to 18, but the annual household income cap is still low—$25,000 for a parent with one child or $31,700 for three-member households. Alabama offers another health plan, the Children’s Health Insurance Program, which has higher income limits ($54,600 to $68,800). But parents must make co-payments.”

Zippert explains that although the Affordable Care Act offers subsidized health insurance, Alabama’s poor can’t afford to buy into it because they’d need to earn $11,000 to $12,000 a year—which they don’t (though this is still under the poverty line). “They earn too much to qualify for Medicaid and too little for the ACA plan, so there’s a huge gap of people—40 percent of Greene County’s poor—who have nothing. And this is probably true in Dallas County, too,” he says. He adds that because Alabama didn’t expand Medicaid under the ACA, only 17,000 adults are eligible for it, while 134,000 have no coverage at all.

“It’s hard to comprehend the cruelty of the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision that let Alabama and about 20 other states opt out of expanding Medicaid. Louisiana joined the program when voters elected a Democratic governor, but 14 states, mostly in the South, haven’t,” says Zippert.

Cares Act Funds in the Political Trough

How has Alabama spent its $1.9 billion in Cares Act funds? Congress’s goal with this recent legislation was to repay health facilities, city and state governments, and other groups for what they spend on Covid-19 supplies, tests, lab fees, sick leave, and nutrition assistance; it was also designed to give jobless benefits and help small businesses (with under 500 employees) keep employees on the payroll.

When Congress approved the Cares relief, some Alabama legislators had their own priorities. Del Marsh, the Republican speaker of the Alabama Senate, wanted $200 million to build a new statehouse. U.S. Senator Richard Shelby wanted to match state funds with Cares dollars to extend 16 Alabama airport runways. Governor Ivey’s budget, which the legislature approved, omitted these items. But some other items still raise red flags.

According to the Selma Times Journal, the state awarded $743,000 to the Law Enforcement Agency: of that, $400,000 will be used to “remove impaired drivers from highways” and $343,000 will support the “drug recognition program.” The link to Covid-19 is not immediately clear.

Nor is the $10 million for the Alabama Forestry Association “to help timber owners impacted by Covid-19.” Chris Isaacs, executive vice president of the Alabama Forestry Association, said, “Forest landowners were particularly hard hit.”

This seems arguable, as a Bloomberg News piece on September 18 reported, “In April, pent-up demand for lumber exploded. Do-it-yourselfers fortified by government stimulus checks took on home repairs and remodeling.” According to Kevin Mason, managing director at ERA Forest Products in British Columbia, “We’re in an unprecedented market. The current price, $640 per thousand board feet, is higher than the average over the last four years.”

One explanation for the disconnect could be that by 2020 (according to followthemoney.org), the Alabama Forestry Association had given $2 million to Alabama political campaigns, of which at least 90 percent went to Republicans — with Ivey getting the lion’s share ($213,400).

Then there’s the $26 million to farmers and cattle ranchers. Bobby Singleton, a state Senator since 2005 (representing the Tuscaloosa area) said the farmers and ranchers complained of losses because they couldn’t get cattle to the slaughterhouses when these facilities closed (after workers got the virus). “But they wouldn’t really have losses since the cattle could stay where they are until the facilities re-open. The problem wasn’t one of feed, since they eat grass.” Not surprisingly, the Alabama Farmers Association gave $3.8 million to current officeholders, of which $3.4 million was to Republicans. Rick Pate, the commissioner of agriculture, got $97,000. Governor Ivey received $95,000, and Lieutenant Governor William Ainsworth got over $100,000.

A key problem is that Alabama decided that cities, counties, and nonprofits have to spend on Covid-related services first and then be reimbursed with the Cares dollars afterward. “But small organizations or poor counties and towns don’t have the budget to lay out,” says Singleton. So he asked Kelly Butler, Alabama’s budget director, if they could get the funds upfront, especially to counties or towns where people live under the poverty line. Butler said he’d check with the Governor and get back to him. He got back but said the state would stay with the existing reimbursement model.

Felecia Lucky, director of the Black Belt Community Foundation, says, “Small towns and counties didn’t have the money to spend for items like PPE, the equipment city or county employees need to work at home, EMTs, and sick pay. So they couldn’t take advantage of the Cares funds.”

Thus, BBCF started a Recoverable Grant Program to give the local jurisdictions tranches of $50,000. “By collaborating with Alabama Power Foundation, Protective Life Foundation and the Education Foundation of America, we got a $1.6 million line of credit from the Hope Credit Union. Now, by tapping into the credit, 16 Black Belt counties can get up to $18 million of the Cares funds. (These counties were originally named for their fertile black soil and the economy based on cotton, which was produced by slaves and later, poor Black laborers. Today, it refers to counties with large Black populations.)

A fiscal manager at an Alabama state agency (who asked for anonymity) is concerned that some companies are receiving priority due to their political affiliation and connections with the state government. “My superiors have pushed for certain firms to receive the funds. They’ve also asked us to find ‘creative’ ways to spend as much of the funds as possible. Sometimes this means awarding them to companies that don’t have a connection to virus expenditures. And there’s supposed to be an auditing team to ensure the funds are sent to companies with the greatest needs. But the team doesn’t exist. The funds are completely unchecked.”

He adds that companies with a history of providing services to Alabama access the funds more easily. For example, he points to EA Renfroe, a firm that handles claims for a range of disasters or those against government entities — “not services that can be reasonably considered Covid-related,” he says. He also names the firm Ability Plus, which offers services (for the state) to the disabled. “I’ve talked with other fiscal managers who believe these companies are receiving special treatment.”

Other companies getting the funds don’t have contracts with state departments but are politically connected. “There’s Balch and Bingham LLP, for example, a corporate law firm with over 200 attorneys in several states. It’s hard to imagine a Covid-related need for it to be receiving upwards of $5 million.” (The amounts the companies received are listed in Al.com.)

The state agency fiscal manager says the process is rife for abuse. “The funds are being dispersed to various state departments which, in turn, divide them as they see fit. This explains how some seemingly inappropriate companies have ended up with millions of relief dollars.

“Even where a company seems to qualify, no one is auditing the process to know how many employees it has and if it’s getting the amount it’s entitled to, say, to cover furloughed workers. In more than one instance, favored companies are receiving 100-plus percent of what they should get. It seems they want to line as many pockets as they can before the funds dry up.” He says that small businesses receiving relief “seem to be in an altogether different realm from the whale companies receiving millions.”

Voter Suppression Works

Why aren’t more Black people in the legislature, where they could push for much-needed programs like an expanded Medicaid? Now only 27 of Alabama’s 140 legislators are Black, all of whom are Democrats. The governor is Republican, as are six of the seven members in the U.S. Congress.

The answer is simple: Since 1877, when the Reconstruction era ended, those in power have persistently blocked the Black vote. Voter suppression schemes have shifted over time but always succeed. Originally, the state charged Blacks a poll tax of $1.50 to vote each year (about $25 today) and made them take literacy tests designed for failure: They had to read passages from the U.S. Constitution aloud and then describe them in writing. The tax and tests continued until the Voting Rights Act passed in 1965; and, along with violent repression, they explain why only 240 Dallas County Blacks were registered to vote as late as 1963 (when they comprised 60 percent of Dallas County’s population).

Alabama also denied the vote to those convicted of minor crimes, such as vagrancy (say, for not having a job), for “moral failings” or “mischief” (say, for making insulting gestures), or for mental deficiencies. Thus, in 1903, only 1 percent of Black Alabamans could vote.

The 1965 Act banned these tactics, but the Supreme Court turned the clock backward in 2012, with the Shelby County v. Holder decision: States could now change their voting rules without Department of Justice approval: Chief Justice John Roberts said, “Minority voters don’t need help any more.”

Losing no time, Alabama’s Republican-controlled legislature passed a law within 24 hours of the court’s ruling that requires residents to show photo IDs to vote.

It also planned to shut 31 Department of Motor Vehicle offices, where people get their IDs and voter registration cards. According to a 2018 New York Times article, eight of the 10 counties where the offices were located had the largest percentage of Black residents. The ploy failed, since federal investigators said this would cause “a disparate and adverse impact on the basis of race,” and Alabama had to reopen DMV offices for longer hours in several majority-Black counties.

Undaunted, the state designed more strategies, such as closing 100 polling places in 25 counties. According to a 2018 Birmingham Watch article, some counties lost 25 percent of them — making it harder for people who don’t have transportation to vote.

Next, lawmakers limited the days on which Alabamans can vote: As Secretary of State John Merrill announced, “There is no future for early voting as long as I’m secretary of state.” He also banned curbside voting.

Nor are absentee ballots easy to come by: People must mail in their applications along with a copy of a photo ID. According to Jessica Barker, founder of Lift Our Vote, a nonpartisan group that seeks to end voter suppression, “Most poor people have IDs, but they don’t own printers. Since there’s no public transport, getting copies made is challenging. You might have to walk 20 to 30 minutes to some place that makes copies, and if you’re older, disabled, or afraid to go out because of the virus, you’re likely to give up.”

Even if voters get their ballots, the battle isn’t over. Merrill ruled that voters must have them signed by a notary or two adult witnesses. “Getting two people to sign may not seem hard, but again, for those who are disabled, live alone, or are frightened to go out, it’s a hurdle,” says Barker.

The NAACP and Southern Poverty Law Center sued the state, arguing that photocopies shouldn’t be required to apply for mail-in ballots. But the case hasn’t yet settled.

There’s also the criminal justice system, which creates “the most pernicious form of voter suppression,” according to Daniel Schwartz, executive director of the nonprofit Faith and Action Alabama, a faith-based community organization. “It’s the reason that almost 15 percent of voting-age Blacks still can’t vote,” he says. Ever since the Jim Crow era, Blacks have consistently been jailed for contrived or remarkably minor offenses. (Faya Rose Toure tells of one client whose car was repossessed. “When he tried to remove his personal belongings from the trunk, he was arrested for ‘stealing’ them and put in the Selma jail.”)

Alabama lawmakers linked felonies to voting as early as 1901, when they passed the Moral Turpitude Act: Those who committed crimes that fell into this category lost their vote forever. Over time, more than 500 crimes were lumped under the label — “so many that people didn’t even know what they were,” says Schwartz. In 2016, several organizations fought to abolish this injustice, and a state task force whittled the number down to 46. Schwartz says, “This was something of a victory, but former prisoners still don’t know they can vote since Merrill and the governor refused to send them letters telling them they’re eligible.”

Much more is hidden. Zippert says, “If you’re waiting in jail and haven’t been convicted, you’re allowed to vote. But people aren’t told this.”

The biggest barrier is that ex-felons must pay all their bills before they can vote — which include fines, restitution fees (for something they stole), and court costs. They even have to pay the cost of their parole officers. According to a 2020 Southern Poverty Law Center report, this “is an impossible task, since a 2014 University of Alabama survey found that on average, each ex-felon owed $7,800,” and the jobs they find when they get out of prison pay very little.

As expected, gerrymandering has seriously affected the Black vote. Senator Singleton says the worst impact was in Jefferson County, which includes the city of Birmingham. Here, Republican legislators moved a majority Black district to Huntsville, which altered the size of the Jefferson delegation. “It used to have nine Democrats and nine Republicans, but by moving the district, this reduced the number of Democrats to eight — which changed the balance for passing laws at the state and local level.”

Altogether, using a strategy adopted by Republican politicians across the South, Alabama legislators moved one-sixth of Black voters from majority-white to majority-Black districts. Since Alabama’s whites overwhelmingly vote Republican, the redistricting assured the GOP would run the state.

Zippert says “lots of people have given up, thinking it doesn’t matter who gets elected, and to some extent, this is valid — given the conditions under which they live. But it’s not totally true. If a Democrat had been governor when the ACA was passed in 2010, Alabama would have expanded Medicaid. Walt Maddox, the Democrat mayor of Tuscaloosa who ran against Kay Ivey for governor, said he’d expand it on his first day in office. Ivey, who won, is against it. Also, during the Obama administration, Black farmers got loans and conservation grants. Today, under Trump, this doesn’t happen. So we need to motivate people. They need to know their votes count.”

Zippert’s organization, the Save Ourselves Movement for Justice and Democracy, which is a coalition of 40 other groups, along with Lift Our Vote, the League of Women Voters, and the Coalition for Justice, are working on several fronts. For example, to help voters get copies of their photo IDs, Barker’s group goes door to door with portable printers. “We tell people to leave their IDs outside at the front door, in a paper bag. Then we make a copy and put it back in the bag. We also drive people to polling stations and hold classes in large parking lots — such as at Winn Dixie or Walmart — to train people to become notaries.”

Some groups have launched voter registration drives by going to college campuses and using social media. Dexter Strong, a youth pastor with the group Alabama Democrats, says, “There’s a lot of excitement out there. We signed up 10,000 new voters a few months ago, and we’re now up to 24,000. But there’s a catch. When students register, their voter ID cards are sent to the college post office, and students must pick them up. Often they don’t know the cards were sent and don’t get them. When they go to vote, they’re told they’re not on the voter list and can’t vote.”

The key battle will be for the U.S. Senate, where the Democratic incumbent, Doug Jones, is battling a former Auburn University football coach, Republican Tommy Tuberville. In a state that is ecstatic about sports, the contest will be close — although Tuberville has baggage: He was co-owner of a hedge fund whose ventures, according to a July 5 New York Times article, “turned out to be a financial fraud.” The partner, John Stroud, went to jail; Tuberville’s investors sued him, and he reached a settlement. Whether this matters to his fans is questionable. That it matters a great deal to the ability of Democrats to retake the Senate is obviously paramount.

If the voters who have been ignored or whose rights have been suppressed for centuries find their voice and weigh in heavily for the state-level contests, they could begin to change the laws, and their lives.