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Merrill doubles down — ‘To say we simply support absentee no-excuse voting would be incorrect’

Earlier this week, Secretary of State John Merrill insisted he had never been a proponent of so-called no-excuse absentee voting, arguing that he was only looking to improve upon a proposal offered by State Rep. Laura Hall (D-Huntsville).

Merrill, a rumored candidate for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate seat up in 2022, told Mobile radio’s Sean Sullivan he supported a comprehensive package of measures to improve upon the state’s elections.

In a follow-up interview that aired on Mobile radio’s FM Talk 106.5 on Wednesday, Merrill doubled down. He insisted it was never his intention to “simply support” no-excuse absentee voting.

“We certainly were supportive of HB 396 because of what it was going to accomplish in the process,” he said. “And that is to strengthen the absentee process in the way we introduced. But — for us to say we simply support absentee no-excuse voting would be incorrect. I do think there are a number of things that need to be addressed related to that issue.”

Merrill continued, “But this is not the time, the place, or the opportunity for that discussion to take place. If we had ever been truly supportive of no-excuse absentee, we have had six legislative sessions — this would be the seventh one — to introduce legislation to say the office of the Secretary of State strictly supports the removal of the absentee excuse provision for Alabama’s absentee election process. We’ve never done that. We never will do that. We’re not supportive of that.”

“We do think we need to reevaluate all the things related to the elections process and streamline it to make it as simple as it can possibly be,” he added. “But we’re never going to do anything to hurt what we’ve already built as the most secure election system in the nation — especially since I’ve been here, Jeff, we’ve passed 36 bills through the legislature. Twenty-three of those have been directly related to the elections process. And everything we’ve done has made it easier to vote and harder to cheat in Alabama. That’s why we’re the gold standard.”

Despite Merrill’s remarks, there have been instances to suggest he and his office would at least be open to the idea of expanding absentee voting by eliminating the excuse provision.

On February 24, Grace Newcombe, the director of communications and governmental relations, spoke at a House Constitution, Campaigns and Elections hearing on no-excuse absentee voting. In her remarks, she indicated no-excuse absentee voting would provide a “more accessible means of voting” for constituents.

Partial transcript as follows:

[I]n 2019, as you all will recall, the legislature required a photo ID to be submitted along with an absentee ballot application,” she said. “Since the enactment of that law, we have not identified a single case of alleged voter fraud related to absentee voting. Leading up to November 3, Secretary Merrill extended absentee voting to anyone concerned about COVID-19.

After encouraging those concerned voters to cast an absentee ballot, we witnessed record participating with more than 305,000 absentee ballots cast. The previous record was from 2012 when more than 88,000 absentee ballots were cast. After more than three-and-a-half times the state’s record absentee ballots were cast, we witnessed a clean, fair and secure election. And we still released unofficial election results on election night.

Related to excuses: They seldom serve any real purpose. According to circuit clerks and others who interact regularly with these individuals, the excuses on the application and affidavit are rare, if ever, compared to check that they match. In addition, since Secretary Merrill has been in office, he is only aware of one circuit clerk in the entire state of Alabama who actually verifies that a voter is out of town, or that he or she is working a 10-hour shift or longer.

Since 2015, our office has reviewed 1,572 complaints of voter fraud, finding only five convictions of absentee voter fraud. Of these convictions, our office has determined that the excuse provision would not have deterred voter fraud. Rather, it was the witness and notary requirements that were helpful in convicting the responsible parties. If the excuse provisions are actually an important element in preventing fraud, there should be a mechanism in place for those to mark an incorrect excuse or attempt to cheat the system.

Currently, there is no statutory authority to punish people for incorrect procedures related to the excuse provisions. Therefore, because the excuses serve no real purpose, and because Alabama successfully handled a very similar effort to no-excuse absentee voting on November 3, we believe Alabama is fully prepared to make this change and provide us with more accessible means of voting for our constituents.

Additionally, other reasons have led some to believe Merrill was a proponent of no-excuse absentee voting.

In an email obtained by Yellowhammer News that was sent to members of the Alabama Legislature, Newcombe also said the Office of Secretary of State was fully supportive of HB396, which according to the synopsis of the bill would “authorize absentee voting without an excuse,” among the other provisions mentioned by Merrill.

Also, in a January 13 memorandum also provided to Yellowhammer News, topping a list titled “2021 Secretary of State Legislative Agenda” is “No-excuse absentee voting”:

1. No-excuse absentee voting

a. Require absentee ballot applications to be submitted 10 days prior to the election

b. Allow for opening of absentee ballots for certification to begin at 7:00 a.m.

c. Amend code sections 17-11-2, 17-11-3, 17-11-7, 17-11-10, and 17-11-14

d. Effective immediately

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.