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Secretary of State Merrill addresses redistricting controversies

Recently, the implementation of the newly drawn state legislative district lines has become a point of conversation in large part due to a lack of required performance by a very small number of county registrars in four Alabama counties.

I want every Alabamian to know that while these mistakes were human errors, and everyone makes mistakes, I do not, have not and will not ever accept human error as a sufficient excuse for poor performance and the lack of accomplishment of an assigned task.

It is appropriate to let the people in our state know that in 2017, I formed a task force that studied the position and requirements of serving as a registrar in Alabama. This task force consisted of all stakeholders who work with the registrars, including, but not limited to, registrars, probate judges, circuit clerks, legislators and sheriffs, as well as community interest groups from around the state. Over a period of six months, this task force developed comprehensive legislation to evaluate, assess and implement changes to the responsibility of the position of registrar in Alabama.

I asked State Senator Jimmy Holley and State Representative Alan Baker to sponsor this legislation, which would have dramatically changed the registrar appointment process and increased transparency and accountability from the people who hold the position throughout the state. Senate Bill 137 would have allowed the Secretary of State to provide an updated job description with more stringent minimum qualifications, demographic and county population considerations, required registrar trainings and assessments on an annual basis, clarified that the registrars serve at the pleasure of their appointing authority, and prevented registrars from reappointment if removed for cause, as well as several other significant measures.

Unfortunately, there were several people, including members of the task force, as well as individuals who were opposed to the changes, who voiced their personal concerns to the members of the legislature. This resulted in the failure of this comprehensive piece of legislation.

To be clear, the Secretary of State’s Office has no direct involvement in legislative reapportionment. According to the Constitutions of the United States and Alabama, that responsibility lies with the members of the Alabama Legislature. Our office facilitates the process by ensuring that the registrars receive the new district maps, which are prepared by the Alabama Legislature and provided to us by the Office of Legislative Reapportionment, in a timely manner. In November of 2021, we distributed maps to the county Boards of Registrars to ensure they had this important information as soon as possible to begin their important work.

Currently, many counties are using paper maps to redraw district lines, which can often lead to human error when redrawing district boundaries. We anticipated that some counties might have difficulty assigning the new district lines, so beginning in late 2021, the Secretary of State’s Office made Geographic Information System (GIS) technology available to each county not currently using such mapping technology to reassign individuals who had been relocated based on legislative and congressional reapportionment. The use of GIS technology enables registrars to more accurately implement the new district maps approved by the Alabama Legislature. The Secretary of State’s Office offered to cover the licensing costs for the counties to use GIS. Unfortunately, no county accepted our offer to provide GIS, with many counties citing recurring financial obligations and initial workload concerns.

It is our recommendation that the Alabama Legislature reexamine the current Board of Registrar system, as well as consider providing funding to ensure that boundary lines are drawn appropriately, even if that means engaging outside vendors. This would not be an unduly, burdensome expense because reapportionment occurs only once a decade.

With that being said, those registrars who have proven themselves unable to adequately perform their duties must face consequences. In the county where the most egregious dereliction of duties occurred, I sought and received the resignation of all three registrars involved.

We have the power to correct this and future issues but only with the collaboration of the Alabama Legislature, county officials, and the Secretary of State’ Office.

John H. Merrill is currently serving as Alabama’s 53rd secretary of state

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