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SPLC poll monitor detained, threatened with arrest in Autauga County

Brook Boone, an SPLC attorney, told APR that the incident was evidence that more training is needed for poll workers in Autauga County.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A non-partisan poll monitor says she was detained by an Autauga County Sheriff’s Office deputy and ordered by a supervisor to leave a polling location and to not visit any other in the county or she’d be arrested and charged with a crime.

Vivianna Rodriguez, a poll monitor on behalf of the Southern Poverty Law Center and an outreach paralegal with the nonprofit Montgomery legal advocacy organization, told APR that the supervisor, Autauga County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Captain Tom Allen, slapped her hand while attempting to take her cell phone, which was left on during the incident so she could speak to an SPLC attorney and an attorney with the NAACP’s Legal Defense Fund, who were both on the call at the time.

Rodriguez said in her three years as a poll monitor nothing like the incident in Autauga County had ever happened.

Brock Boone, an SPLC attorney who spoke to Rodriguez after the incident, told APR that what happened was evidence that more training is needed for poll workers in Autauga County.

“I think it’s also another example of something we’ve seen in the past few years, which is, the election official was white. Viviana is a person of color, and it’s an example of what I would say are white people weaponizing the police when absolutely no crime has been committed,” Boone said.

Rodriguez — who is Latina, a first-generation college graduate and works as an advocate outreach paralegal for the SPLC — said she had already visited two other polling locations in Autauga County before the incident, where she’d check to see if the buildings were wheelchair accessible, how long the lines were and if people are socially distanced.

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All of that work can be done from outside, she said, but she always goes in to introduce herself and let poll workers know why she’s there, out of courtesy.

Rodriguez said workers at the other two locations treated her with “kindness,” but after photographing the wheelchair ramp outside at the polling site at Marbury Middle School, she entered to introduce herself to a poll worker and was told she was not allowed to be there if she didn’t have documents proving she was a poll watcher for either the Democratic or Republican parties.

Alabama law allows partisan poll watchers, who are nominated by their political party, to monitor what’s happening in polling locations.

“Non-partisan poll monitors are not prohibited from entering a polling site, but they cannot stay and observe inside. Sometimes our monitors will go in briefly to introduce themselves as a courtesy,” said a member of SPLC’s voting rights team in a message to APR on Tuesday.

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The poll worker asked Rodriguez to step outside while the worker called the probate office, which she did. Rodriguez said she tried explaining she was a non-partisan poll monitor and was even wearing a bright green T-shirt that said as much, with the SPLC logo on the back.

The worker spoke to someone at the Autauga County Probate Office, who also didn’t seem to know what a non-partisan poll monitor was, Rodriguez said, and insisted she fill out an application to be a poll monitor for the independent party and said someone was coming to help her.

“That’s when I called my people from the SPLC to let him know what’s going on and they advised me that I could just leave, if there was going to be such a problem,” Rodriguez said, adding that she told the deputy who she was on the phone with.

Rodriguez said she left in her truck and was a good distance from the middle school when she saw a sheriff’s deputy SUV turn its lights and sirens on and maneuver around other cars to get to her.

She immediately called the attorneys to let them know she was being pulled over.

“I asked the deputy why I was being detained, and he said that it was because I was disturbing the peace and that I was blocking voters from voting, neither of which were true,” Rodriguez said, adding that the deputy called for his supervisor to come.

Autauga County Sheriff’s Office Patrol Captain Tom Allen arrived and told her to step out of her truck, and Rodriguez said the attorneys on her cell phone told her to comply, which she did.

“He keeps telling me to hang up my phone, hang up my phone, and I told him no, that I’m not going to hang up my phone, that I don’t feel safe out there with them,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said Allen told her they had received reports from voters that she was taking photos inside the polling place and was harassing people.

“I stated again to him that that was not true, that I was simply there to make sure that it was wheelchair accessible, ramps are located near the parking, and that those are the pictures that I was taking and they were taken outside of the building,” Rodriguez said. “That’s when he kept trying to reiterate that it was illegal for me to be there if I was not with the Republican Party or with the Democratic Party.”

Rodriguez said one of the attorneys on her cell phone then tried to interject to explain the difference between a partisan poll watcher and a non-partisan poll watcher, and it seemed to make Allen angry.

“He tried to grab my phone and because I reacted so quickly, the motion of me retracting my phone towards my chest is what made him slap my hand,” Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez said she asked him if he’d just tried to grab her phone from her hand and said Allen replied, “Yes, I guess, I did. I don’t know who you’re on the phone talking to, who’s interrupting our private conversation.”

“While he was saying that he was lunging at me, like stepping towards me,” Rodriguez said. “At that point, I felt very unsafe, but I think he kind of realized what he was doing, how it appeared.”

Allen then calmed down and told her that he was giving her a warning and that if she showed up at any other polling site in the county she’d be arrested and most likely charged with a crime, Rodriguez said.

“He ended the conversation with ‘get gone’ and waved his hands in the air towards me,” Rodriguez said.

Attempts to reach the Autauga County Sheriff’s Office and the Autauga County Probate Judge for comment Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Boone said SPLC poll watchers are only at each polling location for less than 20 minutes, just long enough to record whether the locations are wheelchair accessible, note if there’s adequate signage, if lines are long and if people are social distancing. All of that is done outside, Rodriguez said.

“The only time I go in is just to introduce myself,” she said.

“Vivianna was simply trying to ensure that the precinct is upholding safe voting for that community, which is fundamental to a functioning democracy,” Boone said. “So it goes back to policing and also race and also voting. It has all of the elements that make this incident especially troubling and egregious, in my opinion.”

Rodriguez said that as the child of immigrants and a first-generation Mexican-American, she takes her work and the right to vote seriously.

“I believe that this is such a privilege and blessing for everybody to be able to exercise their right to vote, and that is exactly why I get out and poll monitor,” Rodrigeuz said. “Because I feel that everybody should be able to have access to get to the polls, no matter who you are or who you vote for.”

Rodriguez said she was about to start her second shift of poll monitoring. “I’m going to be walking more emboldened because I feel like if this is not deterring me and it’s not scaring me in any sense or any way whatsoever,” she said.

“It’s actually built me back up, reminds me why I’m out here, reminds me why we do this type of work. It reminds me why SPLC has a voting rights practice group, why we’re here, and why it’s necessary,” Rodriguez said.

Margaret Huang, SPLC’s president and CEO, told APR that Rodriguez’s drive to get back out and continue the work Tuesday speaks well for her.

“And it speaks a lot to the passion that so many of us feel as we’re doing the volunteer work. We care about people getting to exercise their right to vote,” Huang said. “And we want to make sure everybody can do it, that everybody has access to their polling place, that there aren’t unnecessary obstacles to the effort to vote. What matters is that people get to have their voice heard in this election.”

Huang herself visited four polling locations in Elmore County Tuesday morning and said generally things were moving smoothly.

“At every polling station I visited the comment was, we’ve seen more people today than we have ever seen before, then we saw in 2016, so there’s a lot of energy and a lot of people turning out,” Huang said.

The biggest challenge she said they saw was a lack of adequate signage denoting polling locations as such.

“There were also some issues with accessibility. Three of the polling stations did not have either designated parking or, frankly, a smooth entry into the building. Some of them didn’t have an accessible ramp at all for people entering the building,” Huang said.

Huang said that’s why SPLC trains non-partisan poll monitors like Rodriguez, to look for ways in which the state can make voting more accessible.

“Not only can we try to be helpful right now, as people are trying to vote, but also for future elections,” Huang said. “We want to try to make every polling place as accessible as possible.”

Huang said there have been reports of long lines and some polling locations in Lee County with just one ballot machine, which is causing longer wait times.

“So people are spending a number of hours there, and we’ve been asking that they extend voting hours because people have been waiting so long to be able to cast their vote,” Huang said.

Attempts to reach Lee County Probate Judge Bill English on Tuesday were unsuccessful.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Health

Alabama hospitals nearing COVID-19 summer surge levels

Wednesday was the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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UAB Chief of Hospital Medicine Dr. Kierstin Kennedy.

Alabama hospitals reported caring for 1,483 people infected with COVID-19 on Wednesday, the highest number of patients since Aug. 11, when the state was enduring its summer surge. Wednesday was also the 18th straight day with more than 1,000 people in hospitals in Alabama with COVID-19. 

The seven-day average of hospitalizations was 1,370 on Wednesday, the 36th straight day of that average rising. The Alabama Department of Public Health reported 2,453 new cases Wednesday. The 14-day average of new cases was — for the eighth day in a row — at a record high of 2,192. 

Across the country, more than 80,000 people were hospitalized for COVID-19 on Tuesday, a record high and the 15th straight day of record hospitalizations nationwide, according to the COVID Tracking Project, a coronavirus tracking website.

The CDC this week recommended people not travel for Thanksgiving to help prevent the spread of coronavirus. 

“The only way for us to successfully get through this pandemic is if we work together,” said Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a message Tuesday. “There’s no one subset of the community that’s going to be able to carry the weight of this pandemic and so we all have to take part in wearing our masks, keeping our distance, making sure that we’re washing our hands.” 

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Kennedy said the best way she can describe the current situation is “Russian Roulette.” 

“Not only in the form of, maybe you get it and you don’t get sick or maybe you get it and you end up in the ICU,” Kennedy said, “but if you do end up sick, are you going to get to the hospital at a time when we’ve got capacity, and we’ve got enough people to take care of you? And that is a scary thought.” 

The Alabama Department of Public Health on Wednesday reported an increase of 60 confirmed and probable COVID-19 deaths. Deaths take time to confirm and the date a death is reported does not necessarily reflect the date on which the individual died. At least 23 of those deaths occurred in November, and 30 occurred in other months. Seven were undated. Data for the last two to three weeks are incomplete.

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As of Wednesday, at least 3,532 Alabamians have died of COVID-19, according to the Department of Public Health. During November, at least 195 people have died in Alabama from COVID-19. But ADPH is sure to add more to the month’s tally in the weeks to come as data becomes more complete.

ADPH on Wednesday announced a change that nearly doubled the department’s estimate of people who have recovered from COVID-19, bringing that figure up to 161,946. That change also alters APR’s estimates of how many cases are considered active.

ADPH’s Infectious Disease and Outbreak team “updated some parameters” in the department’s Alabama NEDSS Base Surveillance System, which resulted in the increase, the department said.

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Corruption

Judge reduces former Alabama Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence

The trial court judge ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard was booked into jail to begin serving his four-year sentence for ethics violations in September. (VIA LEE COUNTY DETENTION CENTER)

Lee County Circuit Court Judge Jacob Walker on Wednesday reduced former Alabama House Speaker Mike Hubbard’s prison sentence from four years to just more than two. 

Walker in his order filed Wednesday noted that Hubbard was sentenced to fours years on Aug. 9, 2016, after being convicted of 12 felony ethics charges for misusing his office for personal gain, but that on Aug. 27, 2018, the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals reversed convictions on five of those counts. The Alabama Supreme Court later struck down another count.

Hubbard’s attorneys on Sept. 18 filed a motion to revise his sentence, to which the state objected, according to court records, arguing that “Hubbard’s refusal to admit any guilt or express any remorse makes him wholly unfit to receive any leniency.”   

Walker in his order cited state code and wrote that the power of the courts to grant probation “is a matter of grace and lies entirely within the sound discretion of the trial court.” 

“Furthermore, the Court must consider the nature of the Defendant’s crimes. Acts of public corruption harm not just those directly involved, but harm society as a whole,” Walker wrote.

Walker ruled that because six of Hubbard’s original felony counts were later reversed, his entrance should be changed to reflect that, and ordered his 48-month sentence reduced to 28 months. 

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Wednesday said Walker’s decision to reduce Hubbard’s sentence was the wrong message to send.

“Mr. Hubbard was convicted of the intentional violation of Alabama’s ethics laws, the same laws he championed in the legislature only later to brazenly disregard for his personal enrichment,” Marshall said in a statement. “Even as he sits in state prison as a six-time felon, Mike Hubbard continues to deny any guilt or offer any remorse for his actions in violation of the law.  Reducing his original four-year sentence sends precisely the wrong message to would-be violators of Alabama’s ethics laws.”

Hubbard was booked into the Lee County Jail on Sept. 11, more than four years after his conviction. On Nov. 5 he was taken into custody by the Department of Corrections.

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News

Nick Saban tests positive for COVID-19, has “mild symptoms”

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn.

Eddie Burkhalter

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University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban.

University of Alabama head football coach Nick Saban has tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the Iron Bowl and has mild symptoms, according to a statement from the university on Wednesday. 

“This morning we received notification that Coach Saban tested positive for COVID-19,” said Dr. Jimmy Robinson and Jeff Allan, associate athletic director, in the statement. “He has very mild symptoms, so this test will not be categorized as a false positive. He will follow all appropriate guidelines and isolate at home.” 

Saban had previously tested positive before Alabama’s game against Georgia but was asymptomatic and subsequently tested negative three times, a sign that the positive test could have been a false positive. He returned to coach that game. 

It’s unlikely Saban will be able to coach in person during Saturday’s Iron Bowl against Auburn, given the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines for quarantining after testing positive and with symptoms. Neither Saban nor the university had spoken about that possibility as of Wednesday morning.

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National

Civil rights leader Bruce Boynton dies at 83

The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

Brandon Moseley

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Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton

Selma attorney and Civil Rights Movement leader Bruce Carver Boynton died from cancer in a Montgomery hospital on Monday. He was 83. The Dallas County Courthouse Annex will be renamed in honor of Boynton and fellow Civil Rights Movement leader J.L. Chestnut.

“We’ve lost a giant of the Civil Rights Movement,” said Congresswoman Terri Sewell, D-Alabama. “Son of Amelia Boynton Robinson, Bruce Boynton was a Selma native whose refusal to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant led to the landmark SCOTUS decision in Boynton v. Virginia overturning racial segregation in public transportation, sparking the Freedom Rides and end of Jim Crow. Let us be inspired by his commitment to keep striving and working toward a more perfect union.”

Boynton attended Howard University Law School in Washington D.C. He was arrested in Richmond, Virginia, in his senior year of law school for refusing to leave a “whites-only” section of a bus station restaurant. That arrest and conviction would be appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where Boynton and civil rights advocates prevailed in the landmark case 1060 Boynton vs. Virginia.

Boynton’s case was handled by famed civil rights era attorney Thurgood Marshal, who would go on to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court. The 1960 7-to-2 decision ruled that federal prohibitions barring segregation on interstate buses also applied to bus stations and other interstate travel facilities.

The decision inspired the “Freedom Rides” movement. Some Freedom Riders were attacked when they came to Alabama.

While Boynton received a high score on the Alabama Bar exam, the Alabama Bar prevented him from working in the state for years due to that 1958 trespassing conviction. Undeterred, Boynton worked in Tennessee during the years, bringing school desegregation lawsuits.

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Sherrilyn Ifill with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund said on social media: “NAACP LDF represented Bruce Boynton, who was an unplanned Freedom Rider (he simply wanted to buy a sandwich in a Va bus station stop & when denied was willing to sue & his case went to the SCOTUS) and later Bruce’s mother Amelia Boynton (in Selma after Bloody Sunday).”

His mother, Amelia Boynton, was an early organizer of the voting rights movement. During the Selma to Montgomery Voting Rights March in 1965, she was beaten on the Edmund Pettus Bridge. She later co-founded the National Voting Rights Museum and annual Bridge Crossing Jubilee in Selma. His father S.W. Boynton was also active in the Civil Rights Movement.

Bruce Boynton worked for several years at a Washington D.C. law firm but spent most of his long, illustrious legal career in Selma, Alabama, with a focus on civil rights cases. He was the first Black special prosecutor in Alabama history and at one point he represented Stokely Carmichael.

This year has seen the passing of a number of prominent Civil Rights Movement leaders, including Troy native Georgia Congressman John Lewis.

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