The first thing that John Merrill does is make sure people know that his cell phone number is (334) 328-2787.
“I give my cell phone number to you for one reason,” the man who has served as Alabama Secretary of State for six years and two months told those attending the Republican Women of Coffee County meeting March 17. “That reason is because I work for you.
“If you want to get in touch with me, you need to be able to do so when it’s important for you and not necessarily just when it’s convenient for me,” Merrill explained. “If that is not your expectation of all your elected officials, you either need to change your expectations or you need to change your elected officials.”
Since being elected in 2014 Merrill has visited all 67 counties in the state annually. “It helps me know what’s happening when I’m in those counties listening to our people talk about those things that are important to them,” he explained. “I don’t know a better way to really stay in touch with our folks than to do that on a regular basis.”
Merrill said that he made a commitment that every eligible United States citizen that is a resident of Alabama would be able to register to vote and obtain a photo identification card. “Since that day there are 1.8 million new voters in Alabama,” Merrill said. “We now have 3,584,816 registered voters.
“Those numbers are unprecedented, unparalleled and unsurpassed in the history of this state and per capita, no state in the union has done what we’ve done in the same period of time,” Merrill said. “Ninety-six percent of all eligible African Americans are registered to vote in Alabama, 91 percent of all whites are registered and 94 percent of all those eligible to vote are registered to vote.”
Merrill credited “the diligent work” of the county voter registrar offices throughout the state for that success. ‘We also have removed more than 1.3 million people from the voter rolls. We’ve removed them because they have either passed away, moved away or been put away.”
“Youycannot maintain accurate voter rolls if you don’t remove people—and you need to follow established state law and federal law in order to do that,” he said. “The basic foundational principals for successful elections lie with the integrity of the voter rolls. Without integrity in the voter rolls you are not going to have integrity in the elections.”
Merrill said that Alabama was recently recognized as having the safest, most secure, most transparent and the best run elections in the country for the 2020 elections cycle. “I take a lot of pride in that but the credit doesn’t just go to me, it goes to the election officials and the people that work the polls,” he said. “Because your training and your service in our 1,980 polling sites across the state is what has allowed us to reach that position to be recognized as the national leader in elections.
“The day to be concerned about whether or not we are prepared to administer the election successfully is not the election day, it’s months before when you can do something about it and in doing that you know that you are prepared for the administration of the election the way it is supposed to be administered,” Merrill said. “That’s what we do in Alabama, that’s who we are in Alabama and I take a lot of pride in that.”
Merrill said that he was recently asked to lead the National Commission on Election Integrity, a commission whose purpose is to define best practices in election administration and encourage legislative bodies in each state to adopt those practices in the interest of having “safe, secure, transparent elections in every state in the union.”
The commission’s focus is “empowerment of the states so that they know and understand that they are responsible for their elections following the federal laws with the best interest of their citizens as focus,” Merrill explained.
“We want to ensure that we are only registering legal citizens of the United States, who are residents of that state,” Merrill said. “When it comes to the ‘gold standard’ of elections—which is in-person voting on election day—you need to require a credential that lets us know who those people are with a photo ID.
“You have to have photo ID when you rent an apartment, when you buy a home, buy a car, get insurance, go to the hospital, when you buy alcohol, when you buy tobacco,” Merrill said. “Is it too much to ask when you are going to exercise the most precious right that we have?”
“If you have a vote by mail effort—whether it’s absentee voting that’s secured like the one that we use or whether it’s universal vote-by-mail like other states have, you need to have a signature verification and a match component so we know that that ballot is coming from the person that it is supposed to be
coming from,” he added.
“Whenever you are counting the ballots, you need to be through by election day and you need to make sure that those votes are counted the way that they are supposed to be according to state law,” Merrill said. “One of the things that we saw in 2020 in the nation is that we had secretaries of state, we had governors, in some cases the legislative bodies who were sacrificing security, transparency and accountability of the process for accessibility and availability of the ballot—and you can never sacrifice security, transparency and accountability if you want to have a safe, secure, fair and free election.”
In answer to an audience question, Merrill explained that the Alabama Board of Registrars receives a report from the Alabama Department of Vital Statistics when someone dies.
In answer to a question about felons voting, Merrill explained that there is a list of disqualifying felony convictions that prohibit a person from being able to vote but that a person does not lose their right to vote just because they are incarcerated. “They still have that same right; they can vote absentee and absentee ballots can be mailed to the jail or prison,” he said.
Asked if he would support use of a fingerprint as a means of identifying voters, Merrill said that election technology has not yet reached that level and reiterated that Alabama is a leader in “safest, most secure, transparent and best run elections.”
Merrill said his office has been sued 22 times since he has been elected and that several of those suits have been directly related to photo ID. “I am delighted to report that we are 22 and 0, Roll Tide,” he said with a smile. “Two of those lawsuits that had to do with voter ID went all the way to the United States Supreme Court and our position was upheld.”
Merrill explained that the state uses Elections Systems and Software for software and data cannot be transferred to any other location because it uses a thumb drive, not a modem. “I don’t want anybody coming to me and saying ,‘John, can our elections be stolen?’” he said. “It is not physically possible to according to our standards with our equipment in Alabama.”
Merrill was asked about his selection in March to participate in the Hunt-Kean Leadership Fellows program, a group of national leaders recognized for having the knowledge and skill to be effective education policymakers at the state level. “I am part of a group of business leaders, legislators and educators who will come together to talk about things that need to be discussed from a conservative and liberal perspective to try to get best practices to improve the overall quality of education in the United States and in your state in particular,” he said. “When we decide that we are not going to interact with people who think differently than we do, who look differently than we do, who do not have the same understanding that we do about why we hold the values that we have, then you have put yourself in a position where you can no longer be effective as a leader.
“You find a way to make a good thing out of a bad thing when you can. That’s part of the legislative process,” he added. “Just because somebody is different than you doesn’t mean that they can’t have a good idea or that you don’t need to talk to them about it.”