Merrill's office to evaluate registrars statewide

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Secretary of State John Merrill said Friday that his office is about to evaluate the job performance of all 204 registrars in all 67 counties in the state.

"It's never been done," Merrill told the Daily Mountain Eagle. "It's been in the books for years, decades. Never been done. But it's about to be done and it's about to be done for the rest of the time I'm secretary." 

This will look at members of Boards of Registrars, which are known to be political appointees who oversee voter registration at courthouses across the state. They also assist in getting voter poll lists compiled for local elections in each county. 

The review will have no effect on the 2020 elections, as the last election this year will be in November. Merrill said in a phone interview that the job reviews will start Dec. 1, with Jeff Elrod, the supervisor of voter registration in his office and the liaison with registrars, going to do the in-person reviews. 

"It will take one month. It will be completed in December," Merrill said. 

Evaluations will be made public on completion, according to a release from the office on Thursday. 

"Section 17-4-35 of the Code of Alabama requires the Supervisor of Voter Registration to evaluate Registrars on the performance of their lawful functions," the release said. "Section 17-3-2 requires the Secretary of State to prescribe guidelines to assist the State Board of Appointment to determine the qualifications of the members of the Boards of Registrars." 

A long list of qualifications is used, including being capable of follow state ethic laws, being responsible, having computer skills, being able to read a map, being able to travel to training and being able to work Monday through Friday and some weekends. 

Merrill, who went into office in 2015, said Friday it had taken until now "to get us in a strong position to make sure we are doing the proper evaluation and to make sure we could be effective" to report "what was actually occurring there and the capabilities of the people who serve in those roles."

The process will be non-partisan, which is different than the process that actually appoints the registrars, "which is strictly partisan and strictly - well, there is no other way to say it," he said. "It is an old-line, partisan selection process that is designed for the governor, the auditor and the ag commissioner to issue patronage appointments. That's what it is." 

He noted his office had brought proposed bills before the Legislature "that failed miserably because of the undue influence of the registrars on certain members of the Alabama Legislature. What we're doing, we're using existing law to make sure the people in these roles are serving the people of the State of Alabama to the best of their ability and meeting the needs of the people of our state."

Once the three-man panel appoints the registrar, they have no power to remove them or review them.

"They have no influence on that registrar whatsoever," Merrill said. "The only person who can remove a registrar, according to state law, is the secretary of state." 

Merrill noted since he has been secretary of state, he has removed registrars on three separate occasions. However, he stressed, "That's not the purpose of this. The purpose of this is to insure that the people in the roles are the ones who need to be there and are doing a good job." 

If a situation arises where a registrar would need to be removed, a case would be assembled, he said. The information is brought to the secretary of state. 

"We evaluate the information and then, at that point, we indicate to the individual, 'This is where we are.' If it can be salvaged, we attempt to salvage it," he said. "If it can't be salvaged, as far as their career service is concerned, we say, 'You may want to consider a resignation.' If they choose not to, then we will begin dismissal proceedings."

Merrill noted that starting three years ago, Auburn University has been successfully used to help train registrars. 

"That has gone extremely well," he said. "Auburn is one of the finest institutions in the nation related to election law and election issues in their election center. We have been very excited about the success we've seen with our relationship with Auburn."