Alabama secretary of state launches voter fraud investigation based on a single, offhand remark

John Merrill has a history of pursuing controversy where there is none.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill speaks to the media. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill speaks to the media. (CREDIT: AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

UPDATE (December 21): In a statement on Thursday, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill announced that his office had closed its investigation into claims of voter fraud stemming from a remark a young man made during the Doug Jones victory party. The man had told a Fox10 reporter that he and others had come from “all the way from different parts of the country as part of our fellowship and all of us pitched in to vote and canvas together.” On Thursday, Merrill stated,

Thanks to the help of concerned citizens interested in the credibility and the integrity of the electoral process, the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office was able to identify the young man who was anonymously featured on the news broadcast. After additional research was conducted, it was determined that this young man has lived and worked in Alabama for more than one year and is currently a registered voter in this state.

We applaud this young man’s energy, excitement, and enthusiasm for the electoral process and we are always encouraged when we observe Alabamians who are actively engaged in campaigns and elections in our state.


EARLIER: Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill says he will investigate potential voter fraud in the state’s special election to fill Attorney General Jeff Sessions’ vacant seat, which Democrat Doug Jones won by a narrow margin on December 12. This investigation apparently hinges on a single offhand remark by a man at the Jones victory celebration on election night, according to Mobile Fox affiliate WALA.

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The man in question spoke with FOX10 News Reporter Kati Weis shortly after the race was called. In a live interview, the man remarked that he was excited about Jones’ win.

“We came here all the way from different parts of the country as part of our fellowship, and all of us pitched in to vote and canvas together, and we got our boy elected,” he said.

The comment and video subsequently went viral on social media.

Merrill said this week that he hoped an investigation would reveal whether or not the man in question — who has not been identified — was joking.

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“It’s very disconcerting when someone who’s not from Alabama says that they participated in our election,” Merrill said Tuesday. “So now it’s incumbent upon us to try to identify this young man, to see what kind of role he played, if it was to simply play a canvassing roll, or if he was part of a process that went out and tried to register voters, or if he himself actually became a registered voter.”

While right-wing outlets continue to push this example as proof of massive voter fraud in the Alabama election, Merrill himself has said that evidence to support that theory is scant. But he’s prepared to push forward with an investigation anyway.

“We don’t have any evidence of people doing that, our numbers do not indicate that has happened, but when you have someone actually recorded on television saying that they voted, and that’s what he said, then we’ve got to get to the bottom of that,” he said.

Merrill has a history of stoking voter fraud fears with little proof to back his claims. In October, the Alabama secretary of state referred the names of 674 crossover voters to local elections officials, claiming that they had cast ballots in the Democratic primary and the subsequent Republican runoff election, which violates a state law passed in May. Merrill told ThinkProgress at the time that he was prepared to prosecute those voters, sending them to jail for five years and slapping them with a $15,000 fine.

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“If these people knowingly and willfully voted because they didn’t like the law, they thought the law was wrong, they thought the law was stupid, they didn’t think the law should be enforced, our intentions are to identify those people, fully investigate them, if it’s warranted to have them indicted, to have them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “I want every one of them that meets that criteria to be sentenced to five years in the penitentiary and to pay a $15,000 fine for restitution. That’s what I want.”

A Jefferson County probate judge later ruled that roughly half of the names on that list were simply the result of clerical error, forcing Merrill to backtrack.

By the time Merrill announced he would no longer be pursuing prosecution of the people on his crossover voter list, national media had already reported the erroneous findings, prompting outrage among conservatives and fueling claims of widespread voter fraud.

Similar voter fraud conspiracies have, in the past, fueled aggressive backlash, including unnecessary legislation and voter suppression tactics, which primarily affect minority communities.

Alabama, for instance, has one of the most stringent voter ID laws in the country; during the Alabama special election, Black voters faced several hurdles in getting to the polls, including false claims by polling station staffers on what kind of identification was considered acceptable. In certain cases, citizens with felony convictions on their records were told that they could not use their mugshots as proof of ID, despite county clerks offices across the state giving them explicit permission to do so.

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According to the Daily Beast, “turnout in majority-black counties in Alabama decreased 8 percent after the voter ID law was passed.”