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Etowah County registrars resign after voters given ballots based on outdated districts

Secretary of State John Merrill said legislation is needed to overhaul the registrar position to establish more accountability and prevent issues from occurring again.

(STOCK)

The three Etowah County registrars responsible for redistricting errors in House districts 27 and 28 have all resigned amid “conversations about their performance,” according to Secretary of State John Merrill.

“They’ve found something else to do outside of state government,” Merrill said.

The board of registrars came under investigation by Merrill’s office after numerous reports of primary voters receiving ballots that were not consistent with the new district lines from the legislature’s recent redistricting.

Merrill wrote in an opinion Friday that he had “sought and received the resignation of all three registrars involved.”

While the secretary of state does not have the power to appoint registrars, the secretary is responsible for their termination if their duties go unfulfilled.

The Code of Alabama section 17-3-3 states “the registrars appointed under this article may be removed for cause by the Secretary of State at any time before the end of their term of office, upon submitting written reasons therefor to the registrar removed and to the members of the state board of appointment.”

The Etowah registrars had been made aware of the mapping errors prior to the primary when absentee ballots were printed with the incorrect House district, and Merrill had instructed the registrars to make the necessary corrections before the primary.

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The failure to do so led the Alabama Republican Party having to decide whether to move forward with nominating the winners despite the disenfranchisement of up to 20,000 citizens who were of voting age in the county. 

Other counties experienced redistricting issues

And Etowah County wasn’t the only area to struggle with mapping voters to new district lines. The election contest between incumbent Tom Whatley and challenger Jay Hovey bore out that about 90 voters were allowed to incorrectly cast ballots in the Senate District 27 race. Hovey won that race by just one vote.

Merrill said investigations are still ongoing into other registrars but that the failures are not comparable to the level of catastrophe in Etowah County.

“As far as other locations are concerned, to date we have not found any that are as egregious or as concerning as in Etowah County,” Merrill said. “Those areas are still under investigation. I’m not going to tell you that other things are not going to happen to other people.”

Merrill said that many counties are using paper maps to redraw district lines, resulting in the potential for human error. 

“We anticipated that some counties might have difficulty assigning the new district lines, so beginning in late 2021, the Secretary of State’s Office made Geographic Information System (GIS) technology available to each county not currently using such mapping technology to reassign individuals who had been relocated based on legislative and congressional reapportionment,” Merrill said. “The use of GIS technology enables registrars to more accurately implement the new district maps approved by the Alabama Legislature. The Secretary of State’s Office offered to cover the licensing costs for the counties to use GIS. Unfortunately, no county accepted our offer to provide GIS, with many counties citing recurring financial obligations and initial workload concerns.”

Addressing the root issue

Short of a reelection, there were few options to remedy the issue, but Merrill said the legislature needs to take action to prevent things like this from happening in the future.

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“What we need is a comprehensive overhaul to change the qualifications for those positions and the way those particular positions are assigned,” Merrill said. “It’s going to require legislative action. Accountability for registrars is very limited; they need to have direct supervision on a regular basis. They need to have other requirements to serve in that role and need to be moved away from being political appointees. That should have been done decades ago; we need highly trained, highly qualified people in these positions.”

In 2017, Merrill assembled a task force including many different positions who work closely with registrars who crafted “comprehensive legislation” to implement changes to the accountability and responsibility of registrars.

Senate Bill 137 would have allowed the Secretary of State to provide an updated job description with more stringent minimum qualifications, demographic and county population considerations, required registrar trainings and assessments on an annual basis, clarified that the registrars serve at the pleasure of their appointing authority, and prevented registrars from reappointment if removed for cause, as well as several other significant measures.

“Unfortunately, there were several people, including members of the task force, as well as individuals who were opposed to the changes, who voiced their personal concerns to the members of the legislature,” Merrill said. “This resulted in the failure of this comprehensive piece of legislation.”

Merrill will conclude his term of office at the end of the year and be replaced by the winner of the November general election.

Republican nominee Wes Allen, the heavy favorite to win election to the seat, remained tight-lipped about whether he would pursue any legislative changes to overhaul the registrar position.

“I am committed to working with the registrars to ensure they have all of the resources and correct information to do their jobs,” Allen said.

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Merrill said his office is working to ensure the same issues do not resurface during the general election.

Written By

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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