Secretary of state says runoff poll sites prepared for COVID-19

Merrill: Direct mail voting would be costly, problematic

Posted

Secretary of State John Merrill said direct mail voting as some states now do would cost an extra $41 million and would invite problems making sure voters were eligible. 

In a phone interview Friday, Merrill also talked about efforts to keep polling sites clean due to COVID-19 during the July 14 runoff primary and how easy it would be to get an absentee ballot because of the cornonavirus. 

As of today - Tuesday, June 9 - the  state is now officially a month away from the July 9 deadline to apply for an absentee ballot for the runoff, which was delayed from March due to the COVID-19 virus. Merrill pointed out the last day to register to vote for the runoff is June 29. 

The deadline for returning the ballot in person and the last day to postmark a ballot are both July 13. 

Under the state of emergency for the COVID pandemic, Merrill is encouraging voters concerned about catching the virus at the polls to check the box which reads, "I have a physical illness or infirmity which prevents my attendance at the polls. [ID REQUIRED]”

Applications can be obtained at Walker County Circuit Clerk Susan Odom's office or at alabamavotes.gov. During application, a copy of an eligible voter ID, such as a driver's license, needs to be sent in. Once the voter fills in the ballot, it can be mailed back or brought back to Odom's office. One may also call the Secretary of State's Office at 334-242-7210 or Odom's office at 205-384-7268.

Merrill was asked about a suit the League of Women Voters of Alabama brought against the state, saying absentee voting requirements for submitting a copy of a photo ID and to have the ballot witnessed by a notary public or two adults is a problem constitutionally for people concerned about contracting COVID-19. 

The suit notes that Merrill used emergency powers under a state of emergency for the virus to allow voters to obtain an absentee for the virus, but that is only for the primary. Merrill said Friday he did not want to speculate currently what could happen by time of the Nov. 3 General Election. 

The suit asks to extend no-excuse absentee voting to the General Election and to "remove unnecessary restrictions on absentee voting" and protecting some from the virus. The suit noted one case of an elderly woman who does not have a copier to make a photocopy of her photo ID, and has no way to get an absentee ballot notarized or signed as she is sheltering. 

Merrill raised doubts one in the past two and a half months have never left the house, have not seen another human being and do not have any relative or friend who lives within 50 miles of their residence. 

"People who want to follow the law, they will follow the law," he said. "People who want to cause a problem, they're going to try to cause it." 

With regular, medical and business absentee situations, Merrill was asked about the possibility of a single no-excuse absentee ballot, without dealing with one's personal reasons. Merrill pointed out in the next 30 days, that is essentially "what we have" at the moment due to the virus. 

"Anyone who wants to vote absentee can vote absentee because they can check that box that says they are ill or infirmed and will be unable to appear at my polling site on Election Day," he said. "That is the reason I have indicated people should select if they want to vote absentee and they are not sure one of those other excuses meets their needs." 

He pointed to Section 17-11-3(e) of the Code of Alabama, authorizing the secretary of state, under a State of Emergency - which Gov. Kay Ivey has done - to adopt an emergency administrative related to absentee voting. Under that, Merrill has allowed for the ill or infirmed excuse to avoid COVID-19. 

He was asked about efforts being discussed nationally to change the remote voting process. 

"As far as participating in the absentee process today, we made the excuse provision easier to understand than it ever has been before," as well as more relevant and with more clarity, he said. "We think the provisions placed there in 2019 are more accurate and more direct than they have ever been." The fact one now includes a copy of the photo ID during the application gives "higher credibility and integrity than ever before." 

Merrill wants to see a process "that is easier to use for anyone for any purpose, because that is what it should be about, is accommodating the voter. So it is a gradual process."

Then there is direct mail in balloting, which he said is different than the absentee process being used in Alabama, as it is for regular voting, not absentees.

"The reason we don't want direct mail-in ballots is it is not secure. It is not reasonable to assume everybody's information is going to be current," he said, adding some getting ballots would not be eligible to vote.

Alabama prevents that through extra steps in the absentee process, he said. 

"But with a direct mail-in vote, the voter on the rolls, whether they are an active voter or an inactive voter, whether they have been removed from the rolls or not, will get a ballot mailed to them, and that can cause problems," he said. 

Merrill said one 2016 case in California (reported by an NBC affiliate there) involved 83 ballots were mailed to one person. (Snopes said it was because of a bug in the county's computer system.)

He also told of a report in the Washington Post about Clark County, Nevada, after 1.1 million ballots were recently mailed out due to the coronavirus, thanks to Democrats suing to make the primary more accessible. In time, 200,000 ballots were sent to inactive voters, as they did not reply to a postcard sent to verify an address after 30 days as it was determined they moved. 

Merrill also noted he is asked how much an election cycle costs. With the primary, runoff and general elections factored in, he said it costs $5.5 million for each balloting, totaling $16.5 million in cost for the whole election year. With direct balloting, involving all the costs to process and mail, for one segment of the cycle - a primary, for example - it would cost $18,811,000. 

"The total for the cycle would be about $60 million," Merrill said. "Even a spendthrift liberal can find a way to waste $41 million more effectively than that." 

As for cleaning the poll areas during the runoff to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, Merrill said all voters who go to the polls on July 14 will have hand sanitizers made available to them. The poll workers will all have masks and non-latex gloves issued to them, as well as sanitized wipes and disinfectant spray they can use throughout the day, he said.

Social distancing procedures will be decided on the local level with guidance from the probate judge during the training. Some sites will have decals on the floor saying to stay 6 feet apart and some will have other dividers in place, depending on local decisions, he said. 

Some counties are doing poll working training again and some are not, he said. "They are not required to do it by law," he said. "We are actually providing a video that can be used for training purposes as well," he said. 

"When the election is over, on the day after or a few days after, the polling site - all 1,980 polling sites in the state - will be returned to their pre-election condition through a professional cleaning service that will have been provided by us," Merrill said. "We are paying for that with the CARES Act money appropriated by the Congress. The local government and the state government is not paying any of that cost."