In 1992, Mobile County set its current record for voter turnout when 80 percent of registered voters cast their ballots for incumbent George H.W. Bush, Democratic challenger Bill Clinton or independent candidate Ross Perot.
The political landscape has changed in a number of ways since then, but that record still stands, despite large turnouts in the 2008 and 2012 presidential elections. But while the percentage of registered voters showing up at the polls has fluctuated, the number of people voting has kept pace with the county’s growing population.
In March, more than 1.2 million people set a state record for ballots cast in a presidential primary. Heading into November’s general election, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill believes a contentious presidential campaign could break even more records.
“We feel we could top the highest number that’s ever been recorded because of the enthusiasm associated with this presidential campaign,” Merrill said. “Each of the major candidates have made visits to Alabama and interacted with our people on a personal level.”
Though there’s a suite of municipal elections on Aug. 23, state residents have until Oct. 24 to register in order to be eligible to vote during the Nov. 8 general election.
Whether it’s the onslaught of media coverage the current race for the White House has drawn or the SEC Primary that brought both major party candidates to Alabama — state and local officials are preparing for what could be one of the largest elections in Alabama history.
Growing registration, improving accuracy
Other than the primaries, one big indicator this year’s election could bring lots of Alabamians to the polls is the growth in the overall number of registered voters. Since the beginning of 2015, the state has registered approximately 300,000 new voters.
According to Merrill, that jump brought Alabama’s total to roughly 3.1 million, which he said is likely the largest registration increase in a comparable period, though that type of growth doesn’t always translate to a larger turnout on election day.
“Obviously, we want to make sure people are aware there’s an election coming up, but it’s not really up to us to ensure people actually go out and vote,” Merrill said. “However, we can do and have done anything within our power to make sure they’re registered.”
Merrill’s office has used a multifaceted approach to do so, including the state’s first online registration through www.alabamavotes.gov and the “Vote for Alabama” phone application, though both require a driver’s license or nondriver identification card to complete.
Another effort the office is pushing is the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) mailing assistance program, which is already sending mail-in voter registration applications to roughly 1.2 million Alabamians who are not registered to vote or whose information needs updating.
ERIC is a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the accuracy of voter rolls across the country; Alabama is one of 21 states using its programs. However, the ERIC initiative caused concern about voter fraud recently after a local television station reported a woman in Mobile was sent an invitation to verify her voting status — a woman who has been dead for more than 16 years.
Merrill’s deputy chief of staff, John Bennett, told Lagniappe ERIC uses information from the Department of Motor Vehicles’ database to send mailouts to anyone who may be qualified to vote but doesn’t appear to be registered.
“It appears the DMV doesn’t have a process to eliminate names of people who may be deceased from their database or has had one that doesn’t work very well,” Bennett said. “We’ve seen other cases where a deceased person might be counted as eligible but unregistered, despite the fact that the board of registrars had done their due diligence in removing them at the proper time.”
Bennett said any reports of possible fraud are “obviously a concern,” but added that identifying and correcting situations like the one reported in Mobile are part of “cleaning up” the voter rolls.
In addition, he said there are other stopgaps in place to prevent deliberate fraud.
“If someone was to try to register to vote as that person, they would come up as deceased with the board of registrars,” Bennett said. “At the end of the day, we’re really confident this program will be able to clean up the rolls more than it would do anything to harm them.”
Mobile County Commissioner Merceria Ludgood has concerns about the ERIC program for an entirely different reason, suggesting the mass outreach to voters has the board of registrars inundated with inquires from people who are “bona fide registered voters.”
One of them was Ludgood’s 92-year-old mother, who she said has voted regularly since 1955.
“The action of Secretary Merrill is creating chaos and confusion. His office maintains the official voter rolls; there is no way a search of his records would not have shown my mother as an active voter,” Ludgood wrote in email. “What could possibly motivate him to make such an ill-advised move this close to an election? I cannot help but wonder if it is yet another voter suppression tactic.”
Alabama’s voter ID requirements
Alabama’s recent growth in registration has occurred simultaneously with the implementation of laws requiring voters to present photo identification at the polls as a means of preventing fraudulent voting.
Enacted in 2011, the “photo ID law” originally required preclearance from the federal government but was allowed to go into effect in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the section of the 1965 Voting Rights Act requiring federal oversight.
By the midterm elections of 2014, one of 10 accepted forms of ID was required at polling stations in each of Alabama’s 67 counties. Those are listed at alabamavoterid.com, but the most common among them are a driver’s license or a nondriver ID. Those without any of the acceptable forms of ID can apply to receive a state-issued voter ID card that’s available at no cost through the secretary of state’s office.
Those voter ID cards are also available periodically at mobile locations operated by the secretary of state’s office. Merrill said he’s worked to expand that program during his tenure, and has also deployed other methods to get cards to residents who don’t have an acceptable form of ID already or are unable to travel.
“Last year, we went to every county in the state at least once, and we’ll be in every county in the state again this year prior to October 1,” Merrill said. “We’ve corroborated with legislators and probate judges to be where they think we can reach the most people, because we want to go where they are.”
According to Merrill, his office has actually gone so far as to visit the homes of people who are bedridden or unable to get transportation to one of the state’s mobile ID units. Yet, he said, his office and the state of Alabama have still been accused of “voter suppression” because of the new requirements.
Those accusations became national news last fall when the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency announced it would be closing 31 driver’s license offices due to budgetary shortfalls.
The decision temporarily left 28 counties — many with majority black populations — without a DMV office. ALEA later reopened 30 of those offices, but they continue to operate only one to two days a week in some cases.
Even with the offices reopened, the brief closures brought additional scrutiny of the new ID requirements from critics like Ludgood.
“I continue to feel that there is no voter fraud that justifies the undue burden these new laws place on voters,” Ludgood said. “The courts in the North Carolina and Texas cases saw clearly that these laws were no more than variations of the Jim Crow era laws enacted to suppress minority voter participation.”
Ludgood went on say many people in Mobile County were confused about what would be required to vote: “the rollout was so hurried that the opportunity for full voter education was lost.”
On the contrary, Merrill said he thinks many who criticize the law are “making up an argument” and “can’t show one person that’s been restricted from voting.”
In addition to Ludgood, some of those who have “criticized” the ID requirement include U.S. Rep. Terri Sewell (D-Alabama), U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Georgia), Rev. Jesse Jackson and Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
Merrill claims to have met with each of those listed above on separate occasions, and after showing them the “empirical data,” he said none have since raised issue with Alabama’s ID law.
“We have, according to ALEA, 3.5 million people in the state of Alabama that have driver’s licenses,” Merrill said. “If we’ve got 3.1 million registered voters and 3.5 million people that have driver’s licenses, we don’t have an ID problem in Alabama.”
Still, the state’s voter ID law — like many states — is being challenged in federal court. In December, Greater Birmingham Ministries and the NAACP brought a lawsuit suggesting the new ID requirements infringe on the voting rights of citizens and “disproportionately affect black and Latino voters.”
A trial in that case is scheduled to begin in late 2017, but last February U.S. District Judge L. Scott Coogler denied requests to suspend the ID requirements during the 2016 elections in March, August and November.
Just last week, a federal appeals court struck down North Carolina’s voter identification law, writing that its passage was intended to “target African-Americans with almost surgical precision.” Many believe North Carolina will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court, which could potentially have an effect on laws in other states like Alabama.
Higher numbers and new technology
Like Merrill at the state level, Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis is expecting a large turnout locally. In anticipation, the elections division of his office has increased the number of poll workers for each precinct and the amount of training they receive.
“Based on all that we’re hearing from different sources nationally and at the state level, we’re expecting one of the biggest turnouts ever in the history of our county,” Davis said. “We’re going to approach our training in a little bit different manner for this election to try to fine-tune it because of the heavy turnout we’re expecting.”
Davis did say some voting centers are already pressed for space, but his office has asked the Mobile County Commission to address those concerns. Other than that, though, Davis said his office is somewhat limited in its ability to adjust the voting process.
Some voters will see a change at the polls this year because of a pilot program led by the state that will test electronic poll books for the first time in several counties.
According to Merrill, using that e-polling system could theoretically reduce the time voters spend at the polls by “60 to 75 percent.” The program was authorized by the legislature in May, and Merrill said more than 30 counties would be participating in the pilot during November’s general election.
However, the legislation requires any county participating in the program to get approval from its county commission and the judge of probate. Mobile County officials have been mixed in their response, though. While Davis is hoping to jump right into the pilot, some commissioners have expressed hesitation to test anything new during such a large election.
Ludgood said during the last election there was confusion among poll workers about when to issue a provisional ballot. With such problems occurring with a long-standing voting practice, Ludgood said she would “question the advisability” of implementing new technologies in such a large election.
“There will be a steep learning curve using the electronic books. Why not wait until it will do the least harm? There are special elections coming and then the 2018 statewide election,” Ludgood said. “Err on the side of caution; there are seldom ‘do over’ opportunities in electoral politics.”
Merrill said he understands the concerns of changing the voting process, but said using an electronic polling system could ultimately make things quicker and more accurate.“That’s a reason to do it — to ensure the experience at the polls will be not one that people are anxious about,” he said. “The group we’ve contracted with, KNOWiNK, are the only folks in the [country] we’ve been able to identify that have never had an incident of failure in five years.”
On the elections side, Davis said participating in the pilot wouldn’t cost anything because the state is allowing counties to utilize existing Help America Vote Act funds to purchase the e-poll books.
Mobile County has about $15,000 available in that fund, which Davis said should cover the cost of roughly three e-polling books that would be tested in each of the three County Commission districts during the general election in November.
If the program is implemented statewide going forward, Davis said it would increase ballot security, make it cheaper to facilitate elections and help eliminate any human error in recording voter data.
“The nice thing about e-polling is, it will substantially reduce the number of poll workers necessary on election day,” Davis said. “If you don’t use them, you don’t have to train them, so we’d be able to cut back on our training expenses as well.”
According to Davis, the e-polling system would work by scanning any of the acceptable forms of identification via a device similar to an iPad. That would replace the multiple lines used currently to sort voters alphabetically according to their last names. Then, instead of proceeding to a second table to sign a physical poll book, voters would immediately proceed to pick up their ballots and vote.
The new process could also save time on the back end for the board of registrars, which currently has to manually input data from each poll book to the state’s voter registration database after each election — something Davis said can take several days.
“When the voter swipes their card, that data is automatically transmitted to the secretary of state’s office, and the board of registrars doesn’t have to do anything. This would also reduce the error rate because it would be going electronically as soon as the card is swiped,” he added. “The other nice feature is that once a card is swiped, you can’t go to another poll and use the same card. So, it won’t let you vote a second time.”
Though the county delayed an initial request to approve its participation in the pilot program last month, Merrill has since come to Mobile and met privately with one commissioner to demonstrate the process. Members of his staff are already planning a return trip to meet with the remaining commissioners.
At this point it’s unclear which polling locations in Mobile County would be used in the pilot program, if the commission opts to be one of the 30 counties to test the new system.