Alabama voters participating in the March 3 presidential primaries will have a lot of decisions to make, but one could impact them more directly than the others: selecting which primary they want to vote in.
For only the third time, Alabama will host its primary with a fairly recent ban on crossover voting in place. Crossover voting occurs when someone who votes in one party’s primary election swaps their affiliation to vote in a runoff election between two candidates of the opposite party.
In Alabama, if no candidate receives a majority of the vote in a primary, the top two candidates move on to a head-to-head runoff election. With several races featuring multiple candidates, it’s possible that someone could force a runoff this year. If that happens, the runoff vote would be held March 31.
Under the new law, voters can only vote in the runoff of the party that matches primary they participated in March 3. It should also be noted that, regardless of what primary voters participated in, anyone can cast a vote for any candidate in the general election Nov 2, 2020.
The bill that made crossover voting illegal in 2017 was introduced by State Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, and it has since been implemented by Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill’s office. The bill passed in the middle of the special senate election that put U.S. Sen. Doug Jones, D-Ala., in office.
“It was designed to make sure the party primary process was protected and that the Democrats were able to vote in their party primary without any GOP influence and vice versa,” Whatley said. “That’s why we did this … just to make sure we had a process in place to protect the selection of those candidates.”
It’s certainly not uncommon for states or political parties to limit participation in primary elections to party members only. Many states have had closed primaries or caucuses for years, but prior to Whatley’s bill passing, Alabama had let the parties themselves determine who could participate in their elections.
At the time, Alabama Democrats had prohibited crossover voting in their primary runoffs since 1983, while Republicans had adopted a similar measure in 2016. The legislation in 2017 simply codified the same rules into law by adding fraudulent crossover voting to the list of other state voting crimes. Today, crossover voting is a felony punishable by more than a year in prison and a $15,000 fine.
The crossover ban passed after the primary in the 2017 special election, but was in effect for the GOP runoff between former Attorney General Luther Strange and former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore. In the end, that runoff initially led to roughly 140 suspected cases of illegal crossover voting statewide.
“From there, Secretary Merrill reached out to chief election officials in each county, which in Alabama are the probate judges, and they determined there was not any willful intent in participating in crossover voting in the 41 counties affected,” Grace Newcombe, a press secretary in Merrill’s office, said. “Therefore, it wasn’t necessary to prosecute any of those people found violating the law.”
After a similar runoff election in 2018 midterms, Merrill’s office found that 398 voters had violated the crossover voting law — one of whom had run afoul of it in 2017 as well. So far, despite 538 initially suspected cases, no one in Alabama has been prosecuted for violating the state’s 2017 ban on crossover voting. Still, Newcombe said the secretary of state’s office is continuing to work with officials in each Alabama county to make sure that voters are aware of the new rule.
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