State Elections Chief Faces Criticism Over Partisanship

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Spencer Williams, Alabama Secretary of State's Office

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has gotten into some intense partisan Twitter battles recently. Merrill is a Republican and he is running for re-election this Tuesday. Partisanship is to be expected among political candidates. But is it a problem when you are also the state’s top elections official?

In a recent campaign advertisement, Merrill stands outside in front of a red trolley car and urges the people of Alabama to get out and vote. Later in the video, he tells them how they should vote. “Go in the ballot booth and pull the red elephant’s tail,” he says, “voting for all the Republicans … We need your help and your support in making sure there’s a red tidal wave.”

Like many candidates running in Tuesday’s midterms, Merrill is campaigning for himself and his party. The thing is, as secretary of state, Merrill is Alabama’s chief elections official, so he oversees the election he is a part of. That has led to questions about whether that crosses an ethical line.

“I think it’s an unavoidable conflict of interest,” David Kimball, political science professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis says. Having the secretary of state serve as the chief election official is not new and it is not unique to Alabama, he says. But the level of partisanship sets it apart. “Yeah that’s the problem in a nutshell,” Kimball says. “I mean I think voters have a right to wonder, is John Merrill or any other elected secretary of state making decisions that serve his political interests primarily, or is he making decisions that serve all Alabama voters?”

Merrill says there’s no conflict. “None at all,” he says, “and the main reason for that is because the way the Alabama election system is structured. This isn’t the first time Merrill has gone to great lengths to help those in his party. In 2015 during the presidential primaries, he worked to lure Republicans to Alabama and publicize their events to voters statewide.

When it comes to elections, Merrill says he doesn’t do the job alone. Local election officials help administer elections too, he says. David Kimball says that argument does not carry much weight. “It’s not like he has no influence over elections there,” Kimball says. “He’s the top elections official in the state. He’s got power.”

Kimball says in other democratic countries, elections are often handled by independent, non-partisan groups. Some states have pushed to implement something similar. To change Alabama’s system would require changing state legislation, which is not likely to happen anytime soon.

Heather Milam, Merrill’s Democratic opponent in the race, says by nature of the system, the position is partisan, but she says, “even though you are affiliated with a party, you can still execute the job in a non-partisan fashion. It doesn’t take much effort to just not say things that would influence an election.”

That includes on social media. Merrill has come under fire recently for blocking his critics on Twitter, including Milam at one point. In a heated Twitter exchange, he told Mallory Hagan, a Democrat running for Congress, she is going to lose. And he has tweeted things like “liberals don’t care about helping people.”


Milam says Merrill is misusing his position. “He has the ability to influence elections and that’s exactly what he should not be doing,” Milam says.

When asked about the impact of partisanship, Merrill says he sees it differently, adding he keeps his party affiliation separate from his role as secretary of state. But if that red tidal wave ushers in big wins for Republicans statewide this Tuesday, he would not be disappointed.


Mary Scott Hodgin

Mary Scott Hodgin

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