State Elections Chief Faces Criticism Over Partisanship

Posted by .

 1491238611 
1541167767

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

Health and Science Reporter



Jefferson County’s First African American Sheriff Wants to Boost Diversity
01-14-2019

Mark Pettway begins his job as Jefferson County sheriff today. He’s the first African American to hold that post after defeating longtime Republican Sheriff Mike Hale in November. One of his priorities is to hire and promote more women and minorities in law enforcement.

New Jefferson County Commission Takes Office With Three New Members
11-14-2018

Sheila Tyson and Lashunda Scales were sworn into office as Jefferson County commissioners Wednesday, along with Steve Ammons, a former Vestavia Hills City Council member. Tyson and Scales are Democrats; Ammons is a Republican. The Republican majority continues on the commission with incumbents Jimmie Stephens and Joe Knight.

Jefferson County’s ‘Blue Wave:’ How the First Black Sheriff and District Attorney Won Election
11-13-2018

Jefferson County’s first black sheriff and district attorney were swept into office Tuesday on a wave of Democratic straight-ticket voting.

Democrats Angered at Lack of State Party Support
11-13-2018

Democrats across the country took the House and flipped several governorships during the midterms. It was a different story in Alabama. Democrats here lost every statewide race, and they lost five statehouse seats to Republicans. Recent news reports say the Alabama Democratic Party sat on hundreds of thousands of dollars — money candidates say could have been used toward their campaigns. Many Alabama Democratic candidates blame their poor performance on the lack of support from the state Party.

Former AL Senator Jeff Sessions Resigns as Attorney General
11-7-2018

The day after the 2018 midterms, Jeff Sessions has resigned as attorney general. In a letter to President Trump, Sessions told the president that he is stepping down “at your request.”