The right of citizens of the United States, who are 18 years of age or older, to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of age.”
That’s the text of the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, and Alabama’s Secretary of State John Merrill should read it. Slowly. As many times as necessary. That’s because a few days ago, filmmaker Brian Jenkins released a preview of his upcoming documentary “Answering the Call,” which looks at the state of modern-day voting rights, and in it Secretary Merrill — the top election official in the state of Alabama — makes comments not worthy of the office he holds, or any public office for that matter.
In the preview of the new film, Secretary Merrill is asked about automatic voter registration — in which when you turn 18 you’re automatically registered to vote: you just need to show up on election day to exercise your constitutional right. Merrill, though, apparently doesn’t see registering as many voters as possible as a laudable goal.
“I don’t think just because your birthday comes around that you should be registered to vote,” Merrill says in the documentary. If Merrill genuinely believes that, then he should start a campaign to repeal the 26th Amendment, which guarantees the very right he seemingly dismisses.
“As long as I’m Secretary of State of Alabama, you’re going to have to show some initiative … if you want to participate in this process, you’re going to have to participate,” Merrill brazenly continues.
“These people fought, and some were beaten and some were killed because of their desire to ensure that everybody who wanted to have the right to register to vote and participate in the process,” he says in the film.
“I’m not going to cheapen the work that they did. I’m not going to embarrass them by allowing somebody [to vote] that’s too sorry to get up off of their rear end to go register to vote. If you’re too sorry or too lazy to get up off your rear and to go register to vote or register electronically and then go vote, then you don’t deserve that privilege … But just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything.”
Just read what he said again, and compare it to the text of the U.S. Constitution at the beginning of the article: “Just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything,” Merrill said. Actually, Secretary Merrill, it does, and you should know that better than anyone in the Yellowhammer State: it’s your job.
Now, after his comments have garnered national disdain, Merrill isn’t walking it back; he’s doubling down. When asked about the widespread criticism of his comments, including by Congressman John Lewis, who stood beside then-President Jimmy Carter to call for automatic voter registration nationwide, Secretary Merrill responded this way:
“I think it’s a bunch of liberal trolls trying to raise the level of interest in the election for supporters of Secretary Clinton to motivate people to get out.”
Merrill is welcome to believe what he wishes, but here’s the reality: I don’t care if you voted for Trump or Clinton. I just care that you were able to vote at all, and automatic voter registration is a way to help facilitate that. As for Alabama’s Secretary of State and whether he cares, I can’t say as much.
The Southern Poverty Law Center immediately responded to Merrill’s comments when they were released:
“Secretary Merrill’s statements are as cynical as they are ignorant. Merrill claims that ‘just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything.’ But he apparently hasn’t read the 26th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution because it says precisely that every citizen in our great country who turns 18 has the right to vote.
“Merrill also bizarrely claims that automatic registration would ‘cheapen’ the sacrifices that American heroes like John Lewis made for voting rights by making voting too easy,” SPLC President Richard Cohen said. “But he apparently doesn’t realize that Congressman Lewis is in favor of automatic registration.
“Meanwhile Alabama, according to the nonpartisan Pew Charitable Trusts, ranks dead last in election performance. Invoking the memory of Congressman Lewis’ sacrifices in order to justify the opposite position that Lewis holds is grotesque but in line with Merrill’s record of supporting voter suppression measures,” Cohen said.
Alabama’s only African-American representative in Congress, Terri Sewell, who represents Selma, also responded to Merrill’s comments.
“Voting is a right for every American and all states, including Alabama, should help make voting easier, not harder, for the American people,” Sewell said. “Civil rights leaders like Rep. John Lewis and MLK Jr. fought to remove barriers to the ballot box, not construct them.”
I’m sure Merrill will just count Richard Cohen and Terri Sewell as “liberal trolls.” If that’s the label you get for wanting as many people to exercise their constitutional right to vote, then I guess I’m a liberal troll, too.
“I’m not attracted to lazy people or sorry people or people who don’t want to get involved,” Merrill said in the documentary.
So get them involved, Secretary Merrill. Allow them to automatically register to exercise their right to vote as soon as they turn 18.
Until then, we don’t care who you’re attracted to, and we’re definitely not attracted to you.