For many Alabama voters, the administration of last Tuesday’s special election was a disaster. Republican Secretary of State John Merrill refused to prepare for high turnout, leading to confusion and long lines; poll workers spread misinformation at understaffed precincts; and some citizens were initially denied a ballot due to a recent “refresh” of the voter rolls. But Merrill does not plan to investigate the calamitous (and possibly illegal) glitches that his office is supposed to be responsible for addressing. Instead, he has chosen to launch a frivolous, partisan investigation based on one ambiguous quote.
The quote in question was uttered on Tuesday night at the victory party for Democrat Doug Jones, who defeated Roy Moore in the closely contested Senate race. At that party, television reporter Kati Weis asked one jubilant supporter, “Why are you excited to see this victory?” The supporter, who has yet to be identified, responded:
Because 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!
Merrill says that this spontaneous utterance suggests the interviewee, and possibly more Jones supporters, committed voter fraud by casting a ballot in Alabama despite living elsewhere. “It’s very disconcerting when someone who’s not from Alabama says that they participated in our election,” the secretary of state explained. He continued:
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. … 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.
There is a vastly more reasonable interpretation of the quote in question. The man likely meant that progressives around the country came to Alabama to campaign for Jones, which included canvassing and helping to register voters. (There is nothing at all suspicious about out-of-state individuals engaging in these common activities, which are protected by the First Amendment.) Out-of-staters likely intermingled with Alabamians throughout the race; campaigns do not typically segregate canvassers by state residency. When the polls finally opened, the Alabamians and the Alabamians alone cast a ballot. Caught in the euphoria of the moment, the interviewee seems to have blurred these lines by using the collective “we.”
Even if this man wanted to cast a fraudulent ballot, it’s unclear how he would’ve pulled it off given Alabama’s extremely strict voter ID and registration laws. But this detail may not trouble Merrill, who appears more interested in intimidating Alabamians into thinking that voting could land them in prison. Following September’s Senate primary, Merrill announced an investigation into “crossover voting”—casting a ballot in the Republican primary, for instance, if you’re a registered Democrat. This primary marked the first election in which Alabama’s new ban on crossover voting took effect, so it’s understandable that a small fraction of voters might have missed the memo. Yet Merrill threatened to prosecute these voters, as well as poll workers who aided them. (After warning of a crackdown for weeks, Merrill ultimately decided against prosecution.)
As Merrill searches for nonexistent voter fraud, he continues to keep Republican Roy Moore’s hopes of victory alive. The secretary of state must certify Jones’ win for the Democrat to be seated in the Senate, but he refuses to do so until the week after Christmas, allegedly to ensure that every ballot is counted. More troublingly, Merrill continues to claim that Moore, who has not yet conceded, can request a recount. As election law expert Michael McDonald notes, Merrill is simply wrong: Under Alabama law, federal candidates cannot ask for a recount. The state conducts an automatic recount in races with a margin of 0.5 percentage points or smaller; Jones’ margin of victory stands at about 1.5 points.
Why is Merrill keeping Moore’s hopes of a recount alive? Why has he failed to seriously inquire into the irregularities that plagued Tuesday’s election? Why is he harassing a Jones supporter who slightly misspoke? All of these questions appear to have the same answer: Merrill puts partisan interests above his own duty to safeguard and certify free and fair elections. An honest secretary of state would view Tuesday’s problems as proof that Alabama is failing its voters. Instead, Merrill sees it as an opportunity to further undermine public confidence in his own state’s elections.