Mother Jones: The Republican Overseeing the Alabama Election Doesn’t Think Voting Should Be Easy
This time last year, Alabama’s chief elections official landed in the national spotlight for delivering a screed against nonvoters that many people interpreted as an attack on African Americans in the state, who have long faced barriers to voting. “If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege,” Republican John Merrill said in an interview with documentary filmmaker Brian Jenkins. Jenkins had asked why he opposed automatically registering Alabamians when they reach voting age, and his response sizzled with anger toward people who “think they deserve the right because they’ve turned 18.” So he made a pledge: “As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.”
The Campaign Legal Center, a voting rights nonprofit, filed a lawsuit this summer alleging that Merrill has “refused to take any meaningful action to implement HB 282 and advise voters of their rights, including publicizing the new eligibility requirements on the Secretary of State’s website, updating voter registration forms, or issuing guidance to registrars.” As part of the suit, the group sought, unsuccessfully, to get a judge to force Merrill to promote the new law. In August, Merrill’s office put out a press release about the law.
But voting rights advocates say Merrill has failed to inform ex-felons of their right to vote. “I think what we’re going to see is that a lot of people are being effectively disenfranchised by the state’s lack of public education around this law,” says Blair Bowie, a fellow at Campaign Legal Center. The group has done its own outreach to ex-felons in Alabama, including information sessions and street canvassing across the state, to try to get the word out about the new law. “I encountered tons and tons of people who were eligible to vote and think they are not,” she says.
Ex-felons who are uncertain about their eligibility could be scared away from registering for fear of prosecution. Bowie says it’s difficult to reassure felons that they can register if they were last told by state officials that they could not, particularly since the registration application threatens jail time for false information on the application.