Alabama’s secretary of state is trying to quash an effort to encourage Democrats to turn out for the upcoming special election for the U.S. Senate.
Late Update: And he’s succeeded (see bottom).
Sec. of State John Merrill’s stance, which is being reinforced by a credulous local press, underscores a troubling reality: that the December 12 vote, which could have major national implications, will be administered by a Republican who has been consistently skeptical, and sometimes downright hostile, toward attempts to boost voter turnout.
Merrill (pictured) said Monday that his office had received complaints about an online ad run by a super PAC supporting Democrat Doug Jones. In the ad, a female African-American narrator calls Republican candidate Roy Moore a “child predator,” then says: “Your vote is public record, and your community will know whether or not you helped stop Roy Moore.”
Moore, a former state Supreme Court justice, has been accused by numerous women of making sexual advances on them when they were teens — one as young as 14 — and when he was in his 30s. He has denied the claims, though not very convincingly.
Speaking to AL.com, Merrill called the ad “voter intimidation,” and said he plans to forward information on it to federal authorities. His comments, which AL.com treats with little skepticism, appear intended to intimidate the group behind the ad, Highway 31, into removing it, and to push the notion that Democrats are playing fast and loose with election rules.
Adam Muhlendorf, a spokesman for Highway 31, didn’t respond to The Daily Democracy’s request for comment, but he told AL.com: “The Secretary of State is distorting the intent of the ad. Whether or not someone votes is public knowledge. The ad is not improper.”
Muhlendorf is clearly correct. To be sure, the phrase “your vote is public record” could be seen as misleading, since some listeners might think it means who you vote for is public record, which of course it isn’t. But that kind of rhetoric is a long way from “voter intimidation,” especially in the context of the closing days of a close-fought campaign.
In fact,, the ad is a relatively mild attempt to use social pressure to encourage voting — an increasingly common campaign tactic. And it stops well short of some other recent campaign communications in this vein.
Ahead of the 2012 election, a conservative group sent letters to 2.75 million voters in 19 states which showed how the recipient’s voting record compared to those of her neighbors. Some letters listed every registered voter on the block and whether they’d voted in the previous two presidential elections. A letter sent the same year by the progressive group MoveOn to millions of voters gave them a score on whether they voted more or less often than their neighbors.
Political groups do this because it appears to work. One 2006 study of Michigan voters found that those who got a mailing listing their voting history and that of their neighbors were over 8 percent more likely to vote than those who got no mailing. And a 2010 study found that people who got Facebook messages showing which friends had voted were more likely to vote than those who got Facebook messages with generic voting information.
In none of these cases were there any serious allegations that the senders of the letters or messages had violated election law.
This is hardly the first time that Merrill, a staunch supporter of Alabama’s voter ID law, has used his position to hinder efforts to encourage voting or to intimidate would-be voters.
In October, Merrill announced that he’d found 674 people who had voted in both the Democratic Senate primary and in the Republican runoff, which is no longer allowed. (His claim was again treated credulously by local press). Merrill said he was referring the cases to law enforcement for possible prosecution, spurring charges from Democrats that Merrill was aiming to intimidate voters. It soon became clear that the vast majority of the cases were the result of errors by election officials, and not a single voter was prosecuted.
Merrill also has refused to publicize a new state law that restores the right to vote to some ex-felons, saying it’s unnecessary. Asked in an interview how a hypothetical ex-felon who tried to register to vote last year and was denied would now know to try again, Merrill was blasé.
“If they’re interested in participating in the process, then they’re not going to try just one time,” Merrill said.
For good measure, Merrill also has compared the right to vote to free ice cream.
Late Update, 12/7: Merrill has now sent out a press release to announce that he’s succeeded in getting Google to remove the ad.
The release misleadingly alleges: “The ad made claims that the candidate a voter casts their ballot for would be made public and would be shared with members of their community.”