By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A Southern Poverty Law Center report released today claims voter suppression is “alive and well” in Alabama and calls for several reform measurers.
But state officials pushed back on the criticism saying Alabama has made great gains in registering and turning out voters.
Caren Short, a senior staff attorney with SPLC, told Alabama Daily News that Alabama ranks low among southern states in protecting voting rights.
“We make voting pretty hard and we don’t have a lot of easy reforms that could make voting simple for people,” Short said. “I think we need to move forward because we’re falling behind.”
The report addresses issues including increasing voters’ access to the ballot, voting rights restoration for former inmates, a lack of transparency in elections management and making the state voter list more accessible.
Restoring Voting Rights
One major issue the report highlights are legal obstacles that previously incarcerated people in Alabama face when trying to gain access to the ballot.
Alabama law currently states that those who have committed a crime of “moral turpitude” will only obtain their right to vote once their probation has been fulfilled and all fees, fines and restitution costs involved with their crime are paid.
In 2017, the Alabama Legislature passed a law that clearly defines what qualifies as a crime of “moral turpitude.”
The report argues that the state has not done enough to educate those who have been released on how to go about applying for a Certificate of Eligibility to Register to Vote or “CERV.”
Alabama’s Secretary of State, John Merrill told ADN that the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is responsible for educating parolees and that his office is not in charge of monitoring released inmates.
“Not only do we not have anything to do with monitoring them, we don’t have any supervision with those who have been incarcerated,” Merrill said. “There’s nothing we can do on behalf of that.”
Short said despite the reform legislation in 2017, the process is still too burdensome, especially the financial cost it takes to get a released inmate their voting rights back.
“There are hundreds if not thousands of people who are currently denied the right to vote simply because they can’t pay off court fines and fees but who are otherwise eligible to vote,” Short said.
The report likens these financial burdens as a modern-day poll tax on low-income Alabamians with past convictions.
Merrill says that paying those fines and fees is part of the process to getting voting rights restored.
“The best way to solve that problem is for them to not become criminals,” Merrill said. “That’s part of paying your due and penance to society.”
Voter Registration Numbers
Merrill has repeatedly said that since his term began in January 2015, his office has registered more than one million new voters, setting a state record of more than 3.5 million total registered voters in Alabama.
Short says these numbers are misleading and if true would be an “astounding achievement.”
“These are numbers that even states with the most progressive and the most helpful voting registration laws, (they) don’t even reach these numbers,” Short said.
SPLC’s own analysis of the Alabama voter file found that only 768,093 people currently listed on the voter rolls were registered on or after January 2015. Of those new registrants, 32,062 people have been marked as inactive voters.
SPLC claims Merrill’s new registered voters number is obtained by using the number of people listed on the voter file and the state’s citizen voting age population, which they say is misleading because the voter file always contains old or invalid voter registrations.
Merrill says the new voter number is from the number of people who have made an application to vote and have been successful in their registration to vote since he came to office.
“I have a name, address, phone number and an email address for each of those 1.4 million, so I can prove my numbers,” Merrill said. “Any number they give, they can’t prove.”
SPLC uses reports from the U.S. Census Bureau from the 2018 election which estimates about 69% of eligible Alabamians are registered to vote. Merrill’s office says that 94% of eligible Alabamians are registered to vote.
In order to fact check Merrill’s numbers, SPLC said it would have to obtain the entire voter file list. The Alabama voter list is a matter of public record but has to be purchase at one cent per name.
“Which means that if you wanted a copy of the voter file it would cost you upwards of $35,000 which makes it not a public document,” Short said.
SPLC thinks that is an exorbitant price tag, especially when considering that some states like North Carolina allow anyone to access voter data for free.
Georgia charges a flat fee of $250 for a statewide voter list and $50 for county lists and Louisiana also charges one cent per name but caps the total cost at $5,000.
Alabama state law says the Secretary of State’s office has the power to set the cost of the file.
“You can have access to it, if you purchase it,” Merrill said. “It’s not unlike any other public record.”
He said that cost covers the time, energy and resources that it takes to provide the list.
Election organization and training
SPLC’s report also says that Alabama’s election administration is decentralized and lacks proper accountability since all 67 counties can vary in some ways with their election administration.
The reports says that the diffused organizational makes it difficult to hold any one office responsible for failure in training and election administration.
“We really are recommending that more power be given to the secretary of state’s office to require some standardized training and systems, so that poll workers and registrars can be trained and prepared for these things that always happen on election day,” Short said.
Don Milligan, the president of the Alabama Association of the Board of Registrars, said he thinks the current way of training registrars is fine and worries about too much influence from the secretary of state.
“I don’t think anyone like that should have total control over the registrars because I don’t think the registrars should come under an opportunity to be influenced,” Milligan told ADN. “That’s the reason why it’s set up like it is.”
Registrars main responsibility is to maintain the voter rolls. They process voter registration forms, decide whether to accept or reject voter registration applications and assign voters to precincts. Registrars are appointed by the governor, agriculture commissioner and the state auditor. They have to live in the county, have graduated high school and “possess the minimum computer and map reading skills” to function in the office.
Milligan said that since most of the registrars are retirees, their level of computer skills can be a problem.
“I happen to be a retired Army computer analysts, so it works well with me, but there are a lot of them that come in that don’t have that background,” Milligan said.
Increasing voter access
The report also details ways that Alabama could improve voter’s access to the ballot box by increasing the number of days to vote before election day and have a no-excuse absentee voting.
There are currently two bills in the Legislature from Rep. Thomas Jackson, D-Thomasville, that aimed at these goals.
But Merrill says there is no point in allowing early voting in a state that is breaking voter turnout records in the state and would cost the state more money in personnel and other expenses.
“No state in the union that has early voting has seen a large increase in voter participation,” Merrill said. “Why would we be supportive of something that’s just going to benefit a handful of people?”
Thirty-three states and the District of Columbia currently offer “no-excuse” absentee voting. Some states allow voters to be placed on a permanent absentee voting list, but Alabama only allows those with a permanent disability to be on such a list.
Nine states including Alabama do not offer early in-person voting options, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The states that currently allow early voting, on average, allow voting to start 22 days before an election day.
Merrill says he doesn’t think the Legislature will ever pass no-excuse absentee voting but did mention the reform to absentee voting that passed last year that now allows incarcerated people not disqualified by their conviction to vote absentee.
“Why do you need to do anything different than what you’re already doing? Because you can’t do anything more if you’re breaking records,” Merrill said.
According to Alabama’s Secretary of State website, the presidential election on Nov. 8, 2016 saw a voter turnout of 66.8% for the state. The national voter turnout was around 55%.
The highest reported turnout rate for Alabama during a general election in recent years was in 2008 at 73.8%.
But SPLC thinks that implementing these voting access measures will continue increase voter turnout and could help reduce possible election day mistakes.
“Our sister southern states have automatic voter registration, they have early voting, they’re moving forward, they understand how implementing these common sense reforms makes life easier for voters, for election officials, for poll workers,” Short said. “It eases tension on the voting system and its just better overall for the electorate and for democracy.”
Merrill said he has a number of legislative priorities for this year’s session but declined to discuss them specifically until the bills have sponsors in the Legislature.