Time to end voter fright night

Published 8:38 am Thursday, November 1, 2018

By Loren Gary

What Halloween costume do you think Secretary of State John Merrill chose for last night’s trick-or-treating? Had the decision been up to me, the choice would have reflected Merrill’s demonstrated behavior with respect to the integrity of Alabama’s election system. Something both goofy and scary.

Merrill rarely fails to crow about having registered more people to vote than anyone in the state’s history. What a joke! He conveniently overlooks the very low bar Alabama set, starting in the late 19th century. Most people know about the literacy tests, poll taxes, grandfather clauses, and other means used to disenfranchise primarily African Americans. Less well known, however, is the way Alabama continued to suppress the vote for most of this century. The state essentially refused to comply with the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (commonly referred to as the motor voter law) until the Department of Justice threatened to sue. It took a November 2015 agreement with DOJ for Merrill to get serious about modernizing voter registration.

If Merrill genuinely cared about voting being as simple as possible while also ensuring against hacking and fraud (he begrudgingly acknowledges that the latter is almost nonexistent), why is Alabama not among the 19 states Trump carried in 2016 which allow early voting and/or no-excuse absentee voting? Alabama permits neither; Merrill opposes both, yet fashion himself a champion of voting rights. That’s downright goofy.

Maybe goofy is too kind a word. In a taped 2016 interview with representatives of Answering the Call, a voting rights initiative, Merrill explained why he didn’t support automatic voter registration of Americans once they’ve turned 18. Listing civil rights heroes including Rep. John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and Martin Luther King, Jr., he said, “I’m not going to cheapen the work that they did. I’m not going to embarrass them by allowing somebody that’s too sorry to get up off of their rear end to go register to vote—or now, because what we’ve done . . . turn the computer on and register to vote—because they think they deserve the right because they’ve turned 18. To me that’s no different than giving ’em a trophy because they played on a ball team. You only get a trophy if you win.”

(Earth to Merrill: you do know that John Lewis strongly supports automatic voter registration, don’t you?)

The Secretary of State’s dismissive attitude extends to former felons who’ve paid their debt to society. Recent legislation has made them are eligible to vote in Alabama—as long as their felony was not one of 46 specific crimes, most of which have to do with murder or sexual abuse. Even though his office was instrumental in getting bipartisan support for language that narrows the definition of “moral turpitude,” Merrill has taken no initiative to notify these former felons (estimates of their number range from 60,000 to 250,000). “I don’t see any reason to contact them directly if we’re already reaching the entire population,” he said in an interview for an August 2018 Daily Beast article, published in partnership with The Marshall Project, an independent nonprofit that covers the U.S. criminal justice system.


How does he know he’s reaching the entire population? A key word search of the Secretary of State’s website turned up nothing related to former felons and their eligibility to vote. No May 2017 announcement of the bill’s signing. No reminders to those newly eligible since. This from the guy who claims he can’t tolerate even one person in this state who remains unregistered despite being eligible to vote and wanting to vote. Just call him on his cell phone, Merrill says; he’ll send people to your home, if need be, to get you registered.


At an October 17 UAB event, Merrill was still sore about the insufficient credit he’s received for his work to get the moral turpitude bill passed. Trying to explain why it was so “unbelievably hard” to find the former felons whose eligibility has been restored—“we don’t even know who they are,” he insisted—he lashed out at detractors. What “all the liberals have been doing,” he said, “is they’ve been wearing me out by saying since I didn’t go see all these people [newly eligible felons] at their house, well, I didn’t have a come-to-Jesus meeting so I could make sure all of them were saved and tell them, ‘Hey, you’ve got your voting rights obviously back,’ then I’m wrong.”


The sarcasm and scorn in that comment are telling. They’re meant not just for his liberal critics, but for anyone who doesn’t meet his definition of deserving the right to vote. “I’m not attracted to lazy people, or sorry people, or people who don’t want to get involved,” he said in the Answering the Call interview. Two weeks ago, at UAB, only after repeated questions did Merrill finally admit that he can find no justification in the U.S. Constitution for the right to vote being dependent on a person’s industriousness or energy level.


For all his neighborly folksiness, Merrill can’t hide his partisan disdain for people he thinks aren’t like him. That’s downright scary. His are not the attitudes or ethics of a true voting rights advocate—which, by his own admission, is his primary job as Secretary State. Alabama deserves better.


Whatever the Halloween costume Merrill chose—we can be certain that he didn’t dress up as a member of the clergy, because that’s illegal in Alabama—let’s make sure to do one thing this coming Tuesday. Put an end to the four years of Voter Fright Night—the uncertainty about the integrity of our voter registration and election-day processes, and the misinformation and condescension that have been hallmarks of Merrill’s tenure as Secretary of State.


Loren Gary, M.Div., is an independent leadership, development, and communications consultant in Birmingham, Alabama.