Noting concerns raised in Walker County, Secretary of State John Merrill said in Jasper Monday that people can mark in individual races even after they have marked a straight party ticket, as individual races can count without spoiling the rest of the straight ballot.
Merrill, who is also campaigning as part of his race on today's General Election ballot, spoke to the Jasper Kiwanis Club on Monday, spending most of his time reviewing election procedures and issues. He faces Democrat Heather Milam on the ballot.
The election will be held from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today across Walker County and the state, with a state and local races, as well as the 4th Congressional District race and several state amendments up to decide. Voters will not be asked to choose a party ballot, and they can vote straight party ticket or crossover between the parties to choose individuals from either party. The may also write-in votes on any of the races, using real people qualified to serve in those positions to make the vote count.
Merrill said people will be allowed to only vote on amendments if they choose to, or even only one race.
Deadlines for registering to vote or applying for absentee ballots for this election have passed. The Walker County Probate Office said Monday that 47,621 people are registered to vote for today's election.
Circuit Clerk Susan Odom said 638 applications had been made for absentee ballots, which she said was very good for an off-year General Election. Of those, only 107 had not been returned as of Monday morning, but about a third of those appeared to come in the mail as Odom was being asked, albeit without confirmation that they had met requirements.
A few ballots are expected to possibly result in provisionals for not following procedure, she said. One voter went through all the procedures only to fail to give a signature in the end.
Walker County Commissioner Keith Davis will essentially represent the Walker County Republican Party today in any situations, along with some other party officials, as party chairwoman Linda Ensor is hospitalized in Birmingham. Davis is a former party chairman.
A Tuscaloosa resident, Merrill, who turns 55 on Nov. 12, is running for a second four-year term on Tuesday, while at the same time managing the election.
"My phone was ringing all the way up here until I got about 20 miles out," said Merrill, who publishes his cell phone number, 205-887-2787, in office materials. "You know when you come up (Highway) 69, there is a stretch where you don't get any calls. That is some of the most peaceful time I've had in the last couple of weeks."
After reviewing the duties of his office, he noted he gives out his cell phone for one reason. "Because I work for you, and it is the greatest privilege I've ever had," he said. "If you need to get in touch with me, just like these 35 or 40 people this morning, starting at 6:15 until right now, if you need to get in touch with me, you need to be able to do so when it is important for you, not when it is convenient to me."
He also noted that he regularly goes to all 67 counties each year. He said his office has saved the state more than $2.6 million, and that performances clauses to all of the office's contracts. Despite being down 11 people, or 25 percent of the office's workforce, the office remains caught up on business filings, after being seven to nine months behind when he took office.
His website, www.sos.alabama.gov, and the state election website www.alabamavotes.gov., has a number of election materials, including the state's voter guide for 2018 and sample ballots for each county. He also pointed out the office's mobile app, Vote for Alabama, which allows people to register to vote or change their voter registration record on the phone.
About 775,000 people have used the online electronic system to register to vote, he said.
He noted the efforts for voter registration and to get people Voter ID cards, through the Boards of Registrars in each county. A mobile unit will also deliver voter ID cards at festivals and scheduled stops, and even to one's home if they can't do it any other way.
"We've done that on multiple occasions," he said.
Since he was sworn in on Jan. 15, 2015, Merrill said 1,136,408 new voters have been registered for a total of 3,457,667 registered voters in the state. Only 300,000 to 350,000 people in the state who could be eligible to vote are not.
"Ninety-six percent of all eligible African-Americans in our state are registered to vote," Merrill said. "Ninety-one percent of all eligible caucasians who live in our state are registered to vote. Ninety-three percent of all the people who live in Alabama are registered to vote, so we have made unbelievable progress."
A total of 670,000 people have been removed from the voter rolls due to moving away, dying or being convicted of a felony, he said. After the meeting, Merrill said anyone who has served his or her time in prison and paid all their fines associated with their original sentence, they automatically have their voting rights restored and can vote.
Merrill told the Kiwanians people criticize him on social media for purging voter rolls, but he said that "the day for dead people voting in our state has passed."
He said he has been pushing to have electronic polling books at all of the nearly 2,000 polling places in the state by 2022, which has cut down time to stand in line for voting.
A total of 29 will use them today, while 35 have adopted them at some level, he said.
In a question-and-answer session, he noted questions have been raised about if one votes, for example, a straight Democratic ticket, but one also then votes for a Republican individual candidate, such as Greg Reed, the Republican senator.
"Will that vote count? Yes, it will," he said, noting it would also work if, for example, one has selected a straight Republican ticket vote at the top, but one also votes for, say, Walt Maddox, the Democratic candidate for governor.
"When you fill in the second bubble in the individual race, it overrides the straight ticket," he said. "If you voted independent for someone, it would be the same thing."
He noted some poll workers in Walker County have reported they were not trained that way, but if anyone was trained differently, it was wrong. "This is the law," he said, noted it is in a code section.
"Walker County has been a county where that has been a concern. There have been some people to express that. I had a conversation with people. I got word last night. I called two people and sent that to about five people that had that information. And that came straight from our election handbook," Merrill said.
"The best way to remember this is the individual vote will override the straight ticket," he said, noting that the rest of the ballot is not spoiled by doing the one override, as the rest of the straight ticket still will count.
Merrill also noted some think they have to still mark every race to make straight ticket voting count. "That's not true. If you mark straight ticket, it counts everybody under the straight ticket that you marked," he said.
He said if one votes a straight ticket and votes more than once in one race, it will not spoil the rest of the ballot, although that race will not be counted. "It would be as if you didn't mark" that race, he said.
On secrecy for absentee ballots, Merrill said the envelope can be matched to a name to prove the person voted, but the actual vote cannot be matched to a name to see how one individual voted. Likewise, at the polls it can be traced on when in line one voted and had their ballot received, but the ballot cannot be traced back to the voter. The only exception would be in military voting, as they are sent to a specific place to vote on a secured website, and one military person may vote.
Merrill said liberals criticize him for not being in favor of automatic voter registration. He said some people don't want to vote, and they can opt to get into the system as opposed to opting out.
As for mail-in votes, he is concerned about ballots mailed to a house, which can be mailed in or put in a drop box. "If we did that in Alabama, and you run a rural route in Parrish, there is somebody trailing that truck," he said. "They are pulling them out and marking them for the candidate of their choice, not the candidate of your choice.
"I couldn't even believe they are doing that. I said that we have people making a living in the Black Belt called absentee election managers. Those people go to people's houses, and they look at the absentee list, and they will give them a fifth of whiskey, a six-pack of beer, a carton of Red Man, a carton of cigarettes, $20, whatever it takes to get their vote."
He said he has had five convictions for absentee ballot misdeeds since taking office, including one last week, with three elections overturned. He has two cases that have to be taken to the grand jury now, in Bessemer and Wilcox County.
"There is enough to keep me busy when it comes to the integrity of the vote, but adding to it with mail-in voting? Seriously."
Merrill also opposed early voting, saying that has consistently been more expensive and has never resulted in more overall voter participation in the states it has been tried. Alabama has already been breaking records for voter participation in the last three major elections held: 1.2 million on March 1, 2016; 2.1 million Nov. 8, 2016 and 1.3 million on Dec. 12, 2017 in the called U.S. Senate election.
He said after the meeting that the state's paper ballots are its main security against online hacking by foreign governments and hacking, adding that the paper ballots are kept for two years after each election.