Alabama elections chief says automatic registration would ‘cheapen’ civil rights leaders’ work

“I think it’s the sorry, lazy way out.”

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. CREDIT: Screenshot
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill. CREDIT: Screenshot

Five states have approved plans to allow all eligible citizens to automatically be registered to vote, unless they opt-out, and dozens more are considering following suit.

But Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) opposes such a practice, calling it the “sorry and lazy way out.”

“I don’t think that just because your birthday comes around, you should be registered to vote,” he said in an interview with Brian Jenkins, the director of a documentary about America’s various barriers to ballot access.

To explain his opposition, Merrill cited the efforts of civil rights leaders like Congressman John Lewis (D-GA), Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and Rosa Parks, and other black leaders like Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL).

“These people fought — some of them were beaten, some of them were killed — because of their desire to ensure that everybody that wanted to had the right to register to vote and participate in the process,” he said.

“I’m not going to cheapen the work they did, I’m not going to embarrass them by allowing somebody that’s too sorry to get up off their rear end to go register to vote… because they think they deserve the right because they’ve turned 18,” he continued, growing angry.

Lewis was not immediately available for comment, but he has spoken out in the past about how he supports automatic registration.

In the interview, Merrill also compared automatic registration to giving everyone on a sports team a trophy for participation. “You only get a trophy if you win,” he said emphatically.

“Just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything,” he continued. “I think it’s the sorry, lazy way out, and it shows no initiative.”

When the interviewer points out that voters still have to take the initiative to go to a polling place to cast a ballot, Merrill adds that he’s not “attracted to lazy people, or sorry people, or people that don’t want to get involved.”

“If you’re too sorry and lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege,” he said.

The Brennan Center for Justice calls automatic registration the “gold standard of modernized registration.” If the practice were to be adopted across the country, roughly 50 million more eligible voters could be added to the rolls, the United States would save money, and the accuracy and security of elections would improve.

After Oregon became the first state to enact automatic registration in 2015, the state added nearly 52,000 voters in just four months this year.

Merrill’s opposition to the practice isn’t surprising given his support for other forms of voter suppression. In the same interview, Merrill claims that even without automatic registration, “there will be no impediment” to Alabama voters participating in elections.

But Merrill has defended Alabama’s voter ID requirement, claiming that there is no proof that the law disproportionately hurts minority voters.

The NAACP Legal Defense Fund and others who filed suit over the law argue otherwise: The state itself has estimated that 250,000 eligible voters lack the proper ID required to vote.

UPDATE: Rep. Terri Sewell, who hails from Selma, responded to Merrill’s comments on Twitter late Wednesday. In a series of posts, she said that she disagrees with the secretary of state’s accusations.

“Civil rights leaders like Rep. John Lewis and MLK Jr. fought to remove barriers to the ballot box, not construct them,” she wrote. “Voting needs to be easier, not harder for the American people. AL should pass automatic registration at 18.”

Merrill immediately responded to her on Twitter:

The two ended the back-and-forth by agreeing to work together to improve voting in Alabama:

But shortly later, Merrill responded to documentary filmmaker Brian Jenkins by threatening to prosecute him. Jenkins traveled to Selma with his uncle, who joined in the 1965 bloody protests, to investigate the current state of voting rights in the state and across the country.

“Alabama has a long history of jailing people in the fight for voting rights and it looks like some things haven’t changed in 50 years,” Jenkins told ThinkProgress. “The spirit of George Wallace and Jim Clark is alive and well in the Alabama State House and John Merrill’s threats should serve as a reminder that this work isn’t over.”

“When one person is oppressed, we are all oppressed,” he continued. “Congressman Lewis told me in his office outside the Capitol that, ‘When you see something that it’s not right, not fair, not just, you have to speak up.’”