An error by an employee of the Alabama secretary of state’s office that led to the misprinting of November’s ballots will cost taxpayers — and could have potentially cost state parks millions in funding annually if Conservation Alabama, a nonprofit environmental advocacy group, had not caught the mistake and brought it to the attention of state officials. And that’s just the beginning of the ballot bungles plaguing the state this election cycle.
Two paragraphs of Amendment 2, which prevents state park funding from being diverted to other programs, had been left off 2.7 million ballots printed and ready for election day, Nov. 8.
According to the nonprofit’s executive director, Tammy Herrington, Conservation Alabama brought the error to the attention of the secretary of state’s office as soon as they became aware of it.
“We [had] received numerous questions from concerned voters about the ballot language for Amendment 2, the amendment protecting funding for Alabama’s state parks,” Herrington explained to media in an email. “When absentee ballots were printed and the sample ballot for November was posted online, the amendment’s first two paragraphs were left off. This means that key language that addressed the permanent protection of state parks funding was omitted.
“Conservation Alabama contacted the Alabama secretary of state’s Election Division to notify them of this error and ask for it to be corrected so that voters can exercise their right to vote in a fair election,” Herrington’s email continues. “The secretary of state’s office was not aware of the ballot error until our call and attributed it to human error. Legally, the full text of any amendment as passed by the state legislature must appear on the ballot. It may not be shortened or changed.”
Secretary of State John Merrill, as Herrington mentioned, attributed the mistake to human error, but it remains unclear whether the slight may have been intentional.
Just after news of the error broke, Merrill’s office released a statement condemning any intentional neglect:
“The secretary is reviewing the events that occurred which promulgated this error and any instances of intentional neglect will be addressed accordingly,” the statement read.
Days later, Merrill issued the following explanation:
“The employee that was transferring the information from the legislation to the ballot, the information that was recorded and sent to the secretary of state, did not read everything that was written down,” Merrill said. “That individual actually left that out.”
Seemingly a mistake, right? Who really knows … When asked to clarify why the error occurred and what happened to the employee, the secretary of state’s office said the “individual responsible for that activity is no longer with our office.” That’s a serious reaction for a seemingly simple mistake. The SOS’s office also hasn’t mentioned how much the reprinting will cost, although the entire cycle costs the state about $1 million.
This isn’t the only ballot bungle Alabama’s secretary of state is involved with, either. Merrill originally refused to put a different constitutional amendment on the ballot after he said the Legislature hadn’t passed it in time for printing. A Montgomery County circuit court judge then ordered Merrill to place the amendment on the ballot.
In addition, the SOS office is being sued by independent presidential candidate Rocky de la Fuente, who says he’s been illegally prevented from appearing on the November ballot here in the Yellowhammer State. The secretary’s office said that in that case, they denied ballot access because of a statutory technicality.
“We denied access to that candidate because we knew, according to the way the law has been written, that individual would not be able to gain ballot access because of the sore-loser law,” Merrill said in a statement. “But after the lawsuit was filed and it went to federal court then there have been some preliminary hearings held and there was a primary hearing held two days ago.”
And in the final ballot bungle of this election season, yet another constitutional amendment is being printed using language that will likely cause its defeat. State Auditor Jim Zeigler recently pointed out that the language printed on November’s ballots regarding a change in the retirement plans of some state workers — that will save taxpayers money — may lose because its wording implies it will cost, not save, tax dollars. Usually Jim Zeigler’s a little off the rocker. This time he’s exactly right.
The amendment will appear on the ballot as follows:
“Proposing an amendment to the Constitution of Alabama of 1901, to authorize the Legislature to provide a retirement program for district attorneys and circuit clerks of the state who are first elected or appointed on or after Nov. 8, 2016.”
The problem is that DAs and circuit clerks already have a retirement system; this amendment wouldn’t create a new system, it would force these workers to pay into the retirement system they already have, using payroll deduction. Whether that’s a good thing, I’m not so sure, but the ballot language itself is clearly misleading.
“The inaccurate wording is likely to get Amendment 1 defeated when it would actually save millions for Alabama taxpayers,” Zeigler said at a news conference. “Citizens are against giving a new pension or any other benefit to politicians at this time. Because the wording says that a retirement is ‘provided’ to these officials, it could draw a ‘no’ vote. This is the fault of the so-called ‘Fair Ballot Commission’ that writes the language appearing on ballots in proposed constitutional amendments.
“The Fair Ballot Commission should all be fired. They did a horrible job. This proposal reads like they took Common Core grammar. The wording is almost opposite of what the amendment would actually do,” Zeigler concluded.
Alabama needs to stop these silly ballot bungles. Voting, particularly in our state, where we frequently amend our nearly ancient constitution, is the heart of democracy. It’s something we should all agree on, and it’s something we should start to get right.