Alabama elections chief is impeding voter registration because he’s not sure people want to vote

Secretary of State John Merrill says former felons who really want to vote will try to register multiple times.

Alabama Republican state Rep. John Merrill poses for portrait in Montgomery, Ala. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson
Alabama Republican state Rep. John Merrill poses for portrait in Montgomery, Ala. CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson

An Alabama federal judge ruled last week that the state does not have to educate former felons about a new law that extends the right to vote to tens of thousands of citizens who had previously been disenfranchised. On Wednesday, Alabama’s Republican secretary of state defended that decision, saying that he doesn’t know whether people with felony convictions actually want to vote.

In a phone call with ThinkProgress, John Merrill (R) said his office is doing everything it can to expand the right to vote to all eligible Alabama citizens. But he said he won’t spend state resources informing people with felony convictions that a new law was signed in May granting many of them the right to vote.

“You’re assuming they even want to vote,” he said. “I don’t know if they do and you don’t either.”

In May, Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a bill defining “moral turpitude,” a century-old, white supremacist phrase in the state constitution that had been used to arbitrarily block people convicted of certain crimes from voting. Before the law was changed, registrars were able to disenfranchise more than 250,000 Alabamians, most of them black.

After the law was changed, the Washington, D.C.-based Campaign Legal Center asked the court to force Merrill’s office to both educate voters of the law change through signs at government buildings and to update the voter registration form to specify who is now permitted to vote. The group also asked that the court compel Alabama to automatically register any former felon who is now eligible but who tried to register to vote in the last two years and was rejected. The judge denied the request.

When asked about those people who have been denied in the past, Merrill insisted that anyone who wants to vote will try hard enough.

ThinkProgress: Take someone who committed a crime that used to fall under the moral turpitude clause but doesn’t anymore because of the law change. Let’s say they tried to register to vote last year and were denied. And they don’t closely follow the legislative process, so they don’t know that this bill has been signed. Are you worried that they were denied last time they tried, so why would they try again?

Merrill: Why wouldn’t he? This is the thing: If they’re interested in participating in the process, then they’re not going to try just one time. That’s like asking me if someone wants to take a flight somewhere and they checked and they couldn’t get a flight, so they never went back on the airline listing again to see if they could go to that place. Well that’s foolish because if it’s important to them to do it, they’re going to do whatever it takes to make it happen.

Danielle Lang, deputy director of voting rights for the Campaign Legal Center, called Merrill’s travel analogy “inapt.”

“It is regular for flights to become available over time. That is an expectation that a reasonable person would have,” she told ThinkProgress. “It’s quite the opposite in the state of Alabama for felon disenfranchisement. The law has been problematic and has disenfranchised felons for decades, so the common sense expectation would not be to expect things to change.”

She added that people may even fear perjury if they are given an official communication from the state that they’re ineligible to register to vote, but they try again anyway.

“Even if they were to think to try again, the way they would think to do that is to go on the secretary of state’s website and look at the voter registration form,” she added. “But if it hasn’t changed, which it hasn’t, then they would have no reason to believe that they can try. To use the inapt comparison, if they were to go back on and look and there were still no flights being shown as available, people wouldn’t know there are secret flights available.”

This isn’t the first time Merrill has compared the right to vote to other activities that are not constitutional rights. In May, he told ThinkProgress that he’s not worried that the bill signed into law in May doesn’t go far enough. The legislation, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey (R) defines crimes of “moral turpitude,” extending the right to vote to many former felons but not all.

“If we had a stand in Anytown, U.S.A. and in that stand on Main Street we’re giving out ice cream. Anybody can come,” Merrill said in May. “They can only get one cone and it’s vanilla. There’s going to be some people who are gonna cry because they can’t get but one scoop, and there’s gonna be some people who are gonna cry because we don’t have chocolate. I don’t worry about the people who want two scoops and I don’t worry about the people who want a different flavor.”

Merrill dismissed criticism of his analogy, saying that he has yet to hear from one person who is being discriminated against or denied access to the polls. But Lang said that his office has provided her a list of 70,000 people who have been de-registered or whose registration applications have been denied on the basis of felony convictions.

Last Friday, a George W. Bush-appointed federal judge sided with Merrill, finding that the state only has a duty to inform county registrars about the change in the law, and former felons can proactively consult the law’s language to see if they are now permitted to vote. Lang said her group decided not to appeal the ruling, as even an emergency ruling would not take effect in time for the registration deadline for Alabama’s August 15 special election primary.

Outside groups can “help educate people,” as the state chapter of the ACLU and Legal Services Alabama have planned, and the media will help to spread information, Merrill said. Lang noted that the Campaign Legal Center has also tried to identify former felons who are now eligible to help them get registered, but “you should not need an attorney in order to vote,” she said.

Despite Alabama’s long history of disenfranchising felons, Merrill said it is not his job to help those with convictions to vote.

“Look, the bottom line is we want to help everybody, but I’m not going to singularly focus on a particular group or a particular set of individuals to try to identify them to put them in a position to try to participate in the process,” he said. “Because, as I already told you, my goal is to ensure that everybody is registered to vote.”

Merrill said he is proud that Alabama has the highest number of registered voters right now of any point in its history, and that “there’s never been a time where its easier to vote.”  But the state still ranks 33rd among states when it comes to voter turnout. Alabama voters are required to show a photo ID at the polls, and the state doesn’t allow citizens to register to vote on Election Day.

While more states move toward expanding access to the ballot box through things like same-day registration (currently enacted in 15 states) or automatic registration (currently approved in nine states), Merrill has been resistant to those efforts. Last year, he said in an interview that allowing Alabamans to be automatically registered to vote would “cheapen” civil rights leaders’ work, calling it the “sorry and lazy way out.”