Officials at the state attorney general’s office say the review is a fairly routine check, designed to make sure the law complies with the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
“This is something that’s done routinely, out of an abundance of caution,” said Suzanne Webb, a spokeswoman for Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.
The payroll deduction ban, commonly known as Senate Bill 2 or SB2, was proposed during the Alabama State Legislature’s special session in December. Critics saw it as an attempt to hobble the Alabama Education Association, the public school teachers union.
State Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, proposed the legislation during a special legislative session last year. Marsh argued that it wasn’t fair to use state resources to direct funds to organizations that participate in electoral politics.
Critics of the payroll deduction ban argued that the bill infringed on public employees’ rights to engage in political speech. Local school officials have said that the cost of administering payroll deductions is negligible.
On Jan. 4, Troy King, then Alabama’s attorney general, sent a letter to the Justice Department asking for a pre-clearance that would determine whether the measure conforms to the demands of the Voting Rights Act to assure that minority voters’ rights are protected.
Webb, the spokeswoman for the state attorney general’s office, said the attorney general requests pre-clearance any time a bill proposes a change to election law. She said that in the last regular session, eight bills and 41 amendments to the Alabama constitution were sent to the Justice Department for pre-clearance.
The Star found out about the federal review during an interview with Marsh — an interview that was interrupted by a call from a Justice Department reviewer.
Marsh said the review was routine.
“Anytime you regulate something that has to do with elections, you deal with this,” he said.
Justice Department spokeswoman Xochitl Hinojosa confirmed via e-mail Thursday that SB2 was under review but did not comment further.
Laws do sometimes fail DOJ pre-clearance. In a suit currently in federal court, Anniston City Councilman Ben Little is asking Alabama to enforce a law requiring judges to recuse themselves when a case involves a lawyer who is also a large donor to the judge’s campaign. That law has been on the books for 15 years but has not been enforced due to lack of pre-clearance.
AEA spokesman David Stout said his organization was not involved with the pre-clearance request. He said it was too early to comment on the matter.
“I’m sure that when the time is right, we’ll have a statement,” he said.
The law doesn’t take effect until March. Webb said the DOJ has 60 days from the Jan. 4 filing date to make a decision on pre-clearance.
If the law fails to win pre-clearance, AEA might be able to keep its current system of dues collection.
Under that system, a teacher can apply for payroll deduction by filing a special form with his or her school’s administration. The forms are provided by the AEA. Local school officials have said the forms are processed during an open enrollment period along with other payroll deduction requests.
The AEA has already taken measures to offset the payroll deduction ban. In the January issue of its newsletter, Alabama School Journal, the group announced a program that allows teachers to set up an automatic bank draft that would allow members to have dues taken out of their bank accounts.