Alabama’s secretary of state is being accused of voter intimidation as his efforts to stoke fear over illegal voting continue to fall apart. In response, he’s telling an African-American voting rights champion in Congress that she’s not informed enough to discuss the issue.
The trouble began last month when Secretary of State John Merrill (pictured) announced that his office had found 674 people who had voted in the Democratic primary and also in the recent Republican Senate runoff, in violation of a new state law barring such “crossover” voters.
Merrill, a Republican with retrograde views on voting access, said he was referring the cases to law enforcement for possible prosecution.
But soon afterwards, Judge Alan King of Jefferson County — where over half the voters on Merrill’s list live — said most of the Jefferson County voters on the list didn’t actually vote in the GOP primary. Their names appeared on the list thanks to a mistake by a precinct official, King said. This week, King, a Democratic member of the White House voting commission, told Merrill that in fact there were “zero” crossovers voter in the county.
The new information raised questions about why Merrill had publicized the 674 number before it had been confirmed.
On Tuesday, Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Ala.) wrote to Merrill accusing him of creating “an environment of voter intimidation” with his announcement, and urging him to reverse his decision to turn over the names to prosecutors. Sewell noted that the primary runoff was the first time that the ban on crossover voting was in effect.
“With no substantial public information campaign to inform voters of the change, many Alabamians were unaware of the new law and now face prosecution for attempting to exercise their right to vote,” Sewell wrote.
“Threatening hundreds of voters with felony charges, jail time, and thousands of dollars in fines for voting will deter other voters from heading to the polls this December,” Sewell added, referring to the state’s closely-watched Senate race.
Sewell has been a congressional champion of minority voting rights. She’s a member of a Democratic panel created to counter the White House voting commission, and this year she introduced legislation to restore the Voting Rights Act to full strength.
But Merrill’s response was dismissive. He told AL.com that Sewell’s claims were “hilarious.”
That prompted Sewell to take to Twitter. “Threatening innocent voters with jail time is never ‘hilarious.’ It’s called voter intimidation,” she tweeted.
That led to the following exchange, in which Merrill suggested Sewell wasn’t sufficiently “informed” to address the issue:
Merrill: “Always helps to be informed about the issues that we want to speak about. If that’s not the case it often puts us in a defensive posture.”
Sewell: “Agreed. Surprised that anyone spoke out recommending the prosecution of 700 voters before checking the list for errors.”
Merrill: “Nobody did that. That’s why it would be better if you were more informed before you spoke about an issue you’re not familiar with.”
Sewell: “I am very familiar with voter intimidation. I come from Selma where our families fought, bled, and died for their right to vote.”
Merrill: “Nobody is talking about voter suppression your (sic) voter intimidation except for the uninformed. We would never stand for voter oppression.”
Merrill is among the nation’s most outspoken proponents of restrictive voting policies. Earlier this year, he said ex-felons concerned that they still must pay fines and fees to regain their voting rights are like people who complain because they can’t get their favorite flavor of ice cream. And he defended his refusal to run a public education campaign informing re-enfranchised ex-felons of their new rights by saying that if they really want to vote, they’ll try more than once.