By Bill Britt, Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Monday, March 16, Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill, Attorney General Luther Strange, and Secretary of Law Enforcement Spencer Collier announced in a joint press conference in Montgomery that their three agencies have reached an agreement to cooperate to ensure fairer elections in Alabama.
The Alabama Election Fairness Project will commence with the office of the Secretary of State, who can ask for assistance from investigators from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, and depending on the severity of an issue, may culminate with the Attorney General seeking prosecution.
Secretary of State Merrill said, if there are any suspected irregularities with the Fair Campaign Practices Act, election, or referendum issues, the Secretary of State’s office can be notified at:
www.sos.alabama.gov or www.alabamavotes.gov
Click on the “Stop Voter Fraud Now” button.
You may also confidentially email your allegation to:
Or, you can speak to a member of the Secretary of State (SOS) staff by calling toll free: 1-800-274-VOTE (8683).
If the Secretary of State’s Office believe further investigation is needed they will refer the case to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA). Secretary of Law Enforcement Spencer Collier said in a written statement, “ALEA will work closely with our partners to protect the voting rights of Alabama citizens by investigating criminal election law violations, including forgery, fraud, and misappropriation of funds.”
If that investigation turns up evidence that crimes occurred or that additional investigation is needed the Attorney General’s Office stands ready to work with local district attorneys to take the matter to the grand jury, if necessary. Attorney General Luther Strange said, “The right to vote is a sacred and fundamental civil right and the foundation of our democracy,” said Attorney General Strange. “My office, working together with the Secretary of State and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, is committed to preserve the integrity of our elections process. We take allegations of voter fraud seriously, and when the situation and facts warrant it, we will investigate and prosecute these matters aggressively.”
The Alabama Political Reporter asked: You will be looking at the campaign finances as contributions were given and reported?
Secretary Merrill replied, “Yes. One of the things our offices are doing now and we started doing this as soon as I became the Sec. of State, our staff, under the Director of Elections Ed Packard and his entire team are devoting a portion of their day each day to investigating reports that have been submitted to us. What happened before was the reports were received and filed but we didn’t have the staff to investigate them or the contributions or expenses. So we’re reviewing each and every report dating back to June 3rd, 2013.”
Secretary Merrill said, “It became very evident to me that we had a disconnect between our citizens who were very interested and very concerned about the appropriate way to issue complaints about campaign finance violations, election fraud, voter registration fraud and things that are connected to insuring that we have fair and safe elections…It became very clear to me that we have to take some kind of action that would be appropriate to make sure these things were dealt with in a positive, consistent and timely basis. And, it was my opinion, based on the things that I heard, that what we needed to do was to strengthen the office of Secretary of State by bringing subpoena power to our office and putting us in a position to request to have granted court orders whenever it was necessary.”
Merrill continued, “However, after talking to some members of the Legislature, I quickly realized that some of the support that was necessary in order to advance that position was not going to be there. And, so what we needed to do was to find another way to make it more effective, and more efficient with existing agencies and organizations that were already in place.”
The Alabama Political Reporter asked: Other than if there are illegalities that you find where campaign finance laws have been broken, are there any penalties in place or will the legislature look at any penalties for these “common” infractions that we see where reports are filed improperly and then amended or not filed in a timely manner? There doesn’t seem to be any teeth in actually doing this correctly.
Secretary Merrill said, “That’s part of the problem…we have some legislation currently being considered that will make sure those penalties in place will be imposed….we want people to know that from now every complaint is going to have a human eye on it and it will be researched and investigated accurately and filed in a proper manner.”
Sec. Merrill said that inquiries or allegations about election or Fair Campaign Practice Act irregularities for the June 2014 Primary, July 2014 Runoff, November 2014 General Election, and any recent or upcoming referendum or election will be reviewed by the Secretary of State’s Office and investigated, if appropriate. If you go to the SOS website: alabamavote.gov or sos.alabama.gov you will find a link that will enable citizens to register a complaint. Sec. Merrill said, “And when we’ve advanced it as far as we possibly can, at that point, we will turn it over to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.”
The Director of the State Bureau of Investigation (S.B.I.) Gene Wiggins explained that S.B.I. will be the lead agency when they receive a complaint from SOS. When they’re done with it they send it to the Attorney General.
The Alabama Political Reporter asked: Dark Money was a big issue in the last campaign. There was a lot of mud-slinging about whether it was Right or Left. Is that something that you can look at, does the State have the power to do that, and will you be looking at it?
Sec. Merrill said, “This is the reason why this current relationship is so important because as the current campaign finance laws stand, we can’t really find out much more than what’s reported in the forms. But, you know who can? Somebody with a subpoena or a court order.”
The Alabama Election Fairness Project will start with the election cycle we’ve just experienced. They will review the 2014 General Election, the party run-off elections and the 2014 party primaries. All referendums that happened between those dates are also still subject to investigation.
Sec. Merrill said, “When I had the conversation with Attorney General Luther Strange and Secretary Spencer Collier from the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, it became very clear to us that what we needed to do was to form a partnership to advance our position to insure we would have safe and fair elections.”
Director Wiggins said, “We want you to understand that whenever there has been reports of a violation that we identify and investigate the perpetrator, and if it’s warranted, they are indicted and prosecuted. But, in order for that to happen appropriately and properly we have to work together as a team. So what we’re doing is using existing resources that the taxpayers of Alabama have already given us to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to meet the needs of all 4.8 million people that we serve.”
For more information about the services provided at the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, visit: www.sos.alabama.gov