Hammering Alabama elections in search of a nail
Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen walks toward a podium during inauguration ceremonies at the Alabama State Capitol on Monday, Jan. 16, 2023 in Montgomery, Alabama. (Stew Milne/Alabama Reflector)
Alabama Secretary of State Wes Allen doesn’t want to make voting easier. He’s always been clear on that.
Take an interview Alabama’s elections chief did a few weeks ago. Allen said he opposed automatic voter registration (AVR), a program where a qualified voter gets registered when they do something like renew a driver’s license.
“Registering to vote is a First Amendment issue in my mind,” he told a conservative radio host. “You’re exercising your speech. And I think that’s a slippery slope you go down when the government just automatically tells somebody that they’re going to be registered to vote. As long as I’m secretary of state, we’re not going down that path.”
AVR usually includes opt-out options, and implementation isn’t really Allen’s call. Even if a vision of the League of Women Voters knocked him to the ground and converted him to the idea, a Republican-controlled Legislature that’s killed six automatic voter registration bills since 2019 would stop his ability to bring it to Earth.
But Allen has other ways to make voting difficult. It’s one of his long-term projects.
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As a state representative, Allen sponsored a 2021 law banning curbside voting. That helped people with disabilities cast ballots. The following year, he helped enact a bill preventing communities from accepting money from “an individual or nongovernmental entity” to assist election administration, which struck hard at poorer areas of the state.
Well, Allen is very, very worried about election security.
During his campaign last year, Allen (and his Republican rival in the primaries, Jim Zeigler) rejected any attempts to make voting easier or more convenient, saying what mattered was election security.
“What’s convenient is making sure we keep our voting safe and secure,” Allen said during the election. “We don’t want any chaos or confusion.”
He returned to that idea last week as he grudgingly accepted a new congressional map, saying in a statement that he was elected to keep Alabama elections “safe, secure and transparent.”
To be clear, fraud is not a problem in Alabama. The Heritage Foundation, which tracks cases, only lists 19 cases of fraud in Alabama between 2000 and 2019, nearly two decades in which tens of millions of votes were cast in dozens of elections.
If they had all occurred in last year’s election, which had one of the worst voter turnouts in recent memory, they would represent 0.001% of the 1.3 million ballots marked for governor. Most of the cases Heritage cites involve absentee ballots, which are already extremely difficult to cast in Alabama thanks to policy.
Then-Secretary of State John Merrill repeatedly stressed the security of Alabama elections, particularly after an ill-advised meeting with election denier Mike Lindell in 2021.
But the absence of a nail never stopped an Alabama politician from a rapid windmill swing of a hammer.
Allen recently ended a mobile app to help Alabamians register to vote, again in the name of election security, but also ostensibly to save $12,000 or more. (Hopefully more, because that’s not very much when we’re talking state dollars).
And almost immediately upon taking office, Allen withdrew Alabama from the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC). That’s a multistate pact that allows states to check the accuracy of their voter rolls.
Why would a person who clearly prioritizes election security get out of such a system?
Well, Allen thinks that ERIC is a “Soros-funded, leftist group,” referring to the liberal billionaire George Soros, a Holocaust survivor whom much of the right views with frothing hatred. As NPR reported in June, the claim that Soros funded ERIC — which is false — emerged from the fevered conservative fanfic of Gateway Pundit and spread among the Comic Book Guys who make up the conservative media complex.
It’s not the first time an Alabama politician made fantasy the basis of public policy. But in this case, it led Allen to create a whole new system that duplicates much of what ERIC is doing and requires negotiated agreements with states that may or may not opt in.
So we replaced a proven way of securing voter rolls with an unproven duplicate because someone wrote a blog post.
A long tradition
Getting in the way of people voting isn’t a new phenomenon in Alabama. Neither is using election security to justify it.
In 1874, the state Democratic Party, then under the control of white supremacists, issued a statement saying they had “reliable information” that Republicans were registering Black men “who have recently been imported” from Georgia and Tennessee.
“We warn our friends in those counties to be on the alert,” the statement said. “Guard well the purity of the ballot box. Watch the polls and the registration lists, and detect and prevent all frauds.”
In the 1901 Alabama constitutional convention, where delegates voted to strip the vote from Black Alabamians and poor whites, the “purity of the ballot” came up again.
“Let us say to those whom we deprive of the elective franchise by this Constitution, we will do it and we do it because it is for the interest of the people of State and of good government and for the purity of the ballot,” one delegate said.
In both cases, a small group of privileged men shuddered at the thought of popular will challenging their authority. And they pushed an idea, still present in Alabama politics today, that democratic elections should be always be viewed with suspicion.
But security isn’t the problem with Alabama elections. It’s the small number of people that participate in them. Turnout for the 2022 midterms was 37.3%, one of the worst in the nation.
That problem has many causes. But you’d hope that a person in charge of elections would see it as an issue, and spend his time looking for ways to help people casting ballots.
He’s going to secure elections, even if it means throwing up obstacles to voting and smashing through proven systems of election security.
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