MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA — With exactly two weeks until Election Day, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) is administering an election like none he could have ever imagined.
After numerous women came forward to accuse Republican candidate Roy Moore of child sexual abuse earlier this month, the race took a drastic turn. National media descended on the state. Republican voters began to publicly state that they could not and would not vote for their party’s candidate. Democrat Doug Jones gained substantial ground in the polls. Leaders in Congress began talking about a write-in campaign or potentially expelling the winner from Congress come December.
“Most of the people in our state will be very excited when this is over,” Merrill told ThinkProgress Tuesday morning.
During an hour-long interview in his office at the state capitol, Merrill spoke at length about the accusations against Moore and about his own role as the state’s highest elections official in an unprecedented election. He responded to criticism of how he handled the potential prosecution of so-called “crossover voters” — people who voted in the Democratic primary and Republican runoff. He also responded to criticisms of his state’s felon disenfranchisement laws, and he spoke at-length about his belief that Alabama should never offer either automatic or same-day registration.
A transcript of the interview is below. The exchange has been edited for length and clarity, and background information is provided in italics.
On December 12, Alabama voters will elect the next U.S. senator. How are you feeling about all of the national attention on this race?
Most of the people in our state will be very excited when this is over. It’s not positive attention. We don’t mind being featured or focused on when good things are happening but most of the things around this race — especially in the last three of four weeks — have not been positive. We don’t really care for our state to be featured in that way. That’s not who we are.
A lot of people that are not from here have negative impressions and images of our state. When some people have an opportunity to accentuate that perspective, they want to do so. It appears as if a great deal of ammunition has been provided by people who are not from our state. That’s unfortunate.
Are you talking about the women accusing Moore of misconduct?
Just about Judge Moore, the allegations about everything. The national media has focused on that aspect of the race and less on the issues associated with our race, whereas I think a lot of our voters will look at those things that have been introduced by those people who say they had a relationship with Judge Moore, and then they’ll look at the race and they may make a decision on who they’re supporting that would be difficult for people who are not from here to understand. They say, “That doesn’t make any sense.” Most people would think this gentleman should be treated one way and now they voted for him. I would not be surprised if when it’s all over, the national folks will look and say, “Why did they make that choice?” and they won’t understand it if they’re not living here in Alabama.
Merrill said in a CNN interview on November 14 that he will vote for Moore unless the allegations are proven true.
Do you think it’s important that voters hear the accusations against Moore?
I think it’s important that voters hear anything that can be introduced from any source about any candidate. The thing that you hope that happens, whenever information is introduced, is that the information is accurate, reliable, and factual. That should be a part of the process when people are determining who they are going to support.
Do you trust that the press has made sure the information presented is factual?
I don’t think so. I don’t know why they’ve elected to go the direction that they have, but I think it’s clear that there’s a different standard for different candidates for different states and different locations. That’s something that has to be sorted out by the people who are trying to discern the information and people who are trying to determine, in our case, who they are going to vote for and who they’re going to support.
Do you have any reason to believe that the reports aren’t accurate and factual?
I don’t know if the reports that I have read are accurate or inaccurate. I don’t know if the allegations that have been presented are accurate or inaccurate. I just know that it’s a lot for our people to digest and it’s a lot for our people to sort through as they’re trying to make their decision about who they’re going to support and why they’re going to give their support to that individual.
Yesterday, retired Marine colonel Lee Busby announced he was launching a write-in campaign. How will that work under Alabama elections law?
Nobody needs to register with us or anybody else to make sure that they’re a candidate. That person offering themself for consideration would need to be someone who’s eligible to serve.
Has a write-in candidate ever won in Alabama?
Not state-wide. We’ve had people who have been elected, but not state-wide.
One of the things that we have done is that we’re going to make sure that everybody in the state knows that at every polling place within the state, there will be an instructional sheet that will be provided for people to know what do to if they want to write someone in. We think there will be a lot of questions about it on Election Day.
I spent the day yesterday with former felons in Dothan, Alabama who have been working to inform people with criminal records of their right to vote. In May, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed a bill defining the “moral turpitude” clause of the state constitution, extending the right to vote to tens of thousands of former felons who were previously disenfranchised.
But many advocates say they are concerned that your office isn’t doing enough to inform Alabama citizens of the new law and to tell people with criminal records that they are still eligible to vote. What do you say to them?
I have one goal. I want each and every U.S. citizen that’s a resident of Alabama to be registered to vote and have a photo ID. That’s what I’ve committed to do from the time that I became secretary of state. What does that mean? It means that, because of our efforts, since January 19, 2015 [when I took office], we’ve registered 854,098 new voters. That’s unprecedented in the state of Alabama. We now have 3,320,780 registered voters in Alabama. That’s unprecedented and unparalleled in the history of the state.
We only have a pool about 300,000 people in the state that are not registered to vote. Everyone else in the state is either ineligible or [not of age or mentally competent]. There’s not very many states in the union that have the percentage that we have.
Now, one of the things you need to know is that when people are incarcerated and when they’re released, one of the things that’s given to them as part of a packet they get, they have to go over what needs to happen if they want to have their voting rights restored. One of the things that we have done, we’ve done this in the 2016 election, is we inform the sheriffs and the wardens that if you have people who are incarcerated who have not lost their rights to vote, they need to be given an application for an absentee ballot. To our knowledge, that had never been done before.
In Alabama, people who have served their time also need to pay off their fines and fees before they are eligible to vote. Voting advocates compare that to a poll tax. Would you agree?
In order for a person to regain their rights, they have to serve all their time associated with their original sentence and they have to pay all the fines and fees associated with their original sentence. Before the law was passed [in May 2016], they had to pay all the fines and fees associated with their terms of service, whatever that may be. But what we did is we made it stop. If they told you that you have to serve eight years and pay $20,000, then the fact that you could not pay it in a timely fashion, it didn’t accrue to $21,000 or $22,000.
The people that are advocates for the incarcerated seem to have forgotten one thing — the people who are incarcerated committed crimes against innocent people who were just trying to live their life, just like you are and just like I am. And that’s it. If you think that those people deserve special rights — we think they need to fulfill the terms of their sentence.
Last month, your office announced that you had identified 674 crossover voters — people who you claimed voted in the Democratic primary and then the Republican runoff, in violation of a new state law. You told me in an interview that you think anyone that knowingly violated the law should serve five years in prison. The next day, the probate judge in Jefferson County told me that all roughly 360 cases in his county were administrative error. Two weeks ago, you announced that you would not be prosecuting anyone for this voting crime. What brought you to that conclusion?
We sent that list of 674 to probate judges and we asked the probate judges in each one of the affected 41 counties to view the information that had been presented to them and to make recommendations to us. They were supposed to check them out and they were supposed to let us know what their thoughts were. There was not a single instance that the probate judge said we need to move forward with additional information or potentially pursue a prosecution.
How many actual crossover voters were there?
I think there were 140 that were confirmed that acknowledged they actually cast a ballot on that day. That ended up being in 21 counties.
Does this show you that voting fraud is not a massive problem?
It doesn’t show me anything about voter fraud not being a problem. We’ve had six convictions since I’ve been the secretary of state with regards to voter fraud. We had two elections that have been overturned because of voter fraud that had occurred. We know that in some areas, voter fraud is a concern and whenever it’s introduced to us, we’re going to pursue it.
You asked me a question about how we’re trying to suppress the vote or discourage people from voting. It’s interesting to me that that topic comes up because people are entitled to their own opinion but they’re not entitled to their own facts, and I’ve already told you what the facts are about how many people we’ve registered to vote. And we broke every record in the history of the state in the general election.
Nine states and the District of Columbia have authorized automatic voter registration, meaning that people who visit certain government offices are automatically added to the voter rolls. If Alabamians decide they want to join that group of states, would you support that decision?
No, I would not support automatic voter registration. I feel that if someone wants to register to vote, they need to register to vote. We make it as easy as possible for them to register to vote.
Why do you think the registration step is so important?
Registration is very important because it enables people that want to register to be able to register.
Do you think there’s at least one person who wouldn’t want to register to vote?
The states that have automatic registration allow people to opt out.
That’s what we’ve got today. You just have to opt in. There’s no difference. You can opt out or you can opt in.
I’m not for automatically registering people to vote just because they turned 18 years of age. I think if they have an interest in registering, they need to register, and the opportunity has been provided in an unparalleled way since I’ve been the secretary of state of Alabama.
If I live in Alabama and Georgia has automatic registration and same-day registration, why couldn’t I just go over and vote in the Georgia governor’s race?
Would you be open to same-day registration?
No, you can’t vet people. You can’t determine whether or not they are citizens of Alabama or if they’re actually living here or not. Why would you want to cause yourself extra work for no reason?
Well the reason would be to make it easier to vote.
It can’t be any easier than it is in the state of Alabama.