Until now, candidates for Secretary of State in Alabama were often overlooked, almost an afterthought on the political scene.
Since the 2020 election, the office of Secretary of State has been elevated in the public eye as the office responsible for ‘’free and fair” elections, including certification of results. The challenges faced by the office in overseeing an election during a pandemic — and after — put the office under a level of scrutiny never seen before.
Alabama’s current Secretary of State, John Merrill, has seen the attention focused on his office increase.
He was asked if he is offended by the people who question the job he has done.
“It doesn’t offend me,’’ Merrill said. “I’m sure there are a lot of ignorant people out there that question Coach (Nick) Saban and what he does and the way he does it. But Coach Saban does not answer to those people. He answers to (Alabama athletic director) Greg Byrne and (University president) Dr. (Stuart) Bell. And even if those people question Coach Saban, he’s still comfortable enough in who he is and what he does because he knows he is doing the very best he can to make sure Alabama remains the ‘gold standard’ in college football.
“I’m not comparing myself to Coach Saban. But I’m responsible to five million people in this state, not just the 3,500,894 registered voters. And I want all five million to be proud of what we’re doing. … When people come to our state to look at what we do and want to review how we do it and our policies and guidelines to adopt them so they can be at the same level we are, we take pride and satisfaction in that.
“I’m not offended at ‘why aren’t you doing this,’ or ‘why aren’t you doing that.’ You’re always looking to improve.”
Nationally, there are 35 states where the Secretaries of State are elected by the people and 12 where the position is appointed by the governor or state legislature. Alaska, Hawaii and Utah do not have Secretaries of State. In the majority of states, the Secretaries serve as chief election officers, maintaining voter databases, registering voters, and overseeing the administration of elections.
Alabama has a run-off for the Republican candidate for Secretary of State between Jim Ziegler and Wes Allen. The run-off will be held on June 21.
Merrill said people need to be aware that the office of Secretary of State is responsible for more than just elections. In Alabama, the Secretary of State is also responsible for notaries public and Civil Law Notaries, a Business Services Division, oversees trademarking and authenticating documents, and a government records section that includes land titles.
“With more than a thousand duties and responsibilities assigned by Code and Constitution, it’s important for people to understand why this position means something to them,’’ Merrill said. “We have broken every record in the history of the state for voter registration and participation, and we take great pride in that.
“But I think the bigger impact, one that is yet to be felt by most Alabamians but is well-known (by businesspeople), is that there has never been a time, prior to our service, when Alabamians were up to date on business filings. For the last six and a half years, we have been at same day on business filing in this state. That has never happened. Historically, this office was often seven to nine months behind, and that slowed down the creation of jobs and economic development options and opportunities, we have that down to ‘same day’ and have maintained that for more than six years.”
Yet it is still election integrity that has created the most attention for the office.
Merrill has been criticized, most notably by “My Pillow’’ guy Mike Lindell, on the way Alabama handled elections in 2020. Lindell filed suit against the Secretary of State's office on behalf of former gubernatorial candidate Lindy Blanchard. Lindell has repeatedly said there are inadequate safeguards in Alabama elections to prevent votes from being flipped unknowingly by voting machines.
“I have been sued 27 times, and this one will make 28, as Alabama Secretary of State,” Merrill told 1819 News when the suit was filed. “Two went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and I am a perfect 27 and 0 and I am confident that I will prevail in this one too.”
While Merrill believes Alabama remains the “gold standard” – his words – for running elections, and points to other states that he says have come to Alabama to learn from and implement many of the states’ processes and guidelines for elections, he says it would be foolish to be satisfied.
“We have to continue to improve election transparency by passing legislation to make it easier to vote and harder to cheat, in all 50 states and the District of Columbia," said Merrill, who was elected and served as chair of the Republican Secretaries of State Committee (RSSC) in 2020. "You begin to do that by electing people to legislative positions that have the philosophy that everybody that is a qualified, eligible voter should be registered and exercise their right to vote. It’s not the job of the Secretary of State to promote voter activity. It is important to me, however, to make sure people are registered, that only US citizens and residents of Alabama are registered, have a voter ID and can participate in the process.”
He has urged the state legislature to toughen the standards for qualifying as a candidate and is also urging for a better system of auditing elections. His office has initiated a trial audit system for this year's elections.
“I introduced an audit system in 2020, but received no support from the legislature,’’ Merrill said. “Then COVID hit, and after the 2020 election went the way it did and suddenly everybody was talking about audits, even people who didn’t know what an audit was composed of.
“We passed legislation to create a pilot protection to audit elections that we’ll have over the 2022 cycle. … We have three counties that we identified to participate: Bullock, Marshall, and Houston. Those three counties have approved to be audited, with full cooperation of the probate judge and county commissioners, and that report will go to the legislature after the election is completed.
“We will review all procedures of election administration, how ballots are handled and tabulated, and study the results of the election to make sure it’s the same (result) as captured on the night of the election and certified as valid.”
Merrill is concerned that the Federal government and the Department of Justice are moving toward more direct control of elections at the state level.
“I am hearing that, and it is a cause of great concern for me,’’ he said. “That’s why one of the things we came out with in our report on national elections – the first pillar is to empower the states; not the federal government but the state. We encourage the states to take more and stronger ownership of election administration in our work to ensure election transparency and accountability.
“We have to make sure that all states follow established state and federal laws of the administration of federal elections in their area. And that’s got to be ongoing.”
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