Those who voted in Mobile County’s general election no doubt noticed the vast majority of their ballot consisted of local constable races.
There were 88 constable precincts up for grabs this year, and of those, nearly half made it before voters without a single person qualifying to be on the ballot. However, that doesn’t mean people weren’t actively campaigning for those offices.
“That’s definitely the common way for it to be done,” Mobile County Probate Judge Don Davis said. “A lot of people either aren’t interested in these positions, or they are but don’t want to pay the filing fees with a political party or comply with the Fair Campaign Practices Act. So, they just run a write-in campaign.”
There were 36 constable precincts on the ballot with no qualifying names, and although there is always a substantial undervote in local constable races, many of the precincts represented by write-ins alone still recorded hundreds of votes — in some cases recording more votes than precincts with qualifying candidates.
Formerly in Alabama, every write-in vote was tallied and counted on election night, whether they were legitimate candidates in smaller races or those sarcastically cast for “Nick Saban” or other celebrities when residents didn’t find a registered candidate to be particularly compelling.
However, that changed during this year’s special session via House Bill 19. Now, write-in votes are counted after the election along with provisional ballots but only if the sum of those votes is “greater than or equal to” the number cast for the candidate on the printed ballot receiving the most votes. But that isn’t to say write-in votes cast last week were ignored completely.
“We know the number of write-in votes. That’s on the tapes and the computer cartridges that we get from each machine at the end of the night,” Davis said. “Now we just have to meet two days after an election to review those and see if they would change the outcome of any election.”
Even if there’s no effect on an election, all of that information is recorded in a Write-In Vote Count Report, and while it’s unlikely that a statewide candidate would fall to an opposing write-in campaign, voters sometimes use that approach to send a message to their elected officials.
U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne handily defeated challenger Dean Young in the March 1 Republican primary, but lost some of his support after asking president-elect Donald J. Trump to drop out of the race for the White House near the end of his campaign over misogynistic remarks the candidate made about women.
Though Byrne managed to secure another term with 105,000 votes Nov. 8, there were 5,384 write-in votes cast against him — more than any other candidate on the ballot in Mobile County. One of the largest write-in campaigns, though, was against Rep. Martha Roby, who also spoke out against Trump. Unlike Byrne, however, Roby never walked back those comments.
According to the Alabama Secretary of State’s office, more than 23,000 write-in ballots were cast against the incumbent congresswoman, turning an easy race against Democrat Nathan Mathis into a narrow 53 percent victory for Roby.
As was also expected, there was substantial number of local write-in votes cast in the presidential race as well, around 1,336 according to the report. Despite those symbolic votes, Davis said the only local races where write-ins were a determining factor occurred in 37 constable precincts.
On Tuesday, Nov. 15, the county paid more than 30 poll workers to count all of the ballots in those races by hand at an estimated cost of more than $5,000. Though Davis’ staff could have performed the task, he said he always prefers to use poll workers when he can.
“With all that’s going on in the country with people not trusting government, I just feel like it sends a better message,” Davis said. “It’s going to transpire one way or another, but I think it sits better with some people if it’s done by poll workers instead of government employees.”
However, while Davis said his office has no problem complying with the law, some longtime constables in the area say they “are not fans” of the write-in campaigns that have grown more common in recent years.
Leo Bullock, a constable since 1984 who manages the Mobile County Constable Office, said his peers that run write-in campaigns are “sidestepping necessary qualifications” at the expense of the county.
“It’s a backdoor approach,” Bullock said. “Most, if not all, of the problems we’ve seen in recent years where constables are getting in trouble with law, those have generally been write-in candidates. We’re not happy about it, and it causes a lot of problems for the elections commission to tally all this stuff up.”
According to Bullock, even if one of those campaigns ends in a tie, Alabama law requires a county sheriff to decide the race with “a coin toss” or by “drawing a name from a hat” — something Bullock called “ridiculous.”
As elected officials, constables are required to file paperwork with the Alabama Ethics Commission, although if they’re elected through a write-in campaign they don’t have to do so prior to their first election. Last week Bullock told Lagniappe the situation sets a bad precedent.
“When you start out doing that, it only leads you down the trail to avoiding other things, and because of the authority and power the office of constable carries in Alabama, I personally believe in background checks,” Bullock said. “We’ve had a few across the state that have criminal records, but they run as write-in candidates and get overlooked. In the end, that becomes an embarrassment for the entire constable office.”
Still, no matter how a local constable is elected, Bullock said the Mobile County Constable Office is ready and willing to provide guidance and connect those new to the position with applicable training for the job.