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Alabama elections chief wants felony charges for up to 674 voters

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Alabama’s Republican secretary of state wants potentially 674 Alabama citizens who voted both in this year’s Democratic primary and Republican runoff elections, in violation of a new law, to be charged with a felony and imprisoned for five years.

Secretary of State John Merrill’s office has referred the names of 674 people who voted in the August Democratic primary and then last month’s Republican runoff to local elections officials, tasking them with investigating the list for errors. Prosecutors will then decide whether to bring charges against the individuals for violating the crossover voting ban, signed by Gov. Kay Ivey (R-AL) in May to prevent members of one party from meddling in the other party’s election.

Merrill told ThinkProgress in an interview Tuesday that he thinks the individuals who switched party affiliations should be sent to prison for five years and hit with a $15,000 fine, the maximum allowable punishment for the low-level felony.

“If these people knowingly and willfully voted because they didn’t like the law, they thought the law was wrong, they thought the law was stupid, they didn’t think the law should be enforced, our intentions are to identify those people, fully investigate them, if it’s warranted to have them indicted, to have them prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law,” he said. “I want every one of them that meets that criteria to be sentenced to five years in the penitentiary and to pay a $15,000 fine for restitution. That’s what I want.”

He added that he is not the prosecutor, but he believes none of these instances of “voter fraud” should be afforded leniency.

Randall Marshall, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, said he was “stunned” by Merrill’s recommended prosecution.

“This is a brand new law,” he told ThinkProgress. “People have been allowed in Alabama to crossover vote prior to this special election.”

Instead of prosecuting the people who likely were unaware or uninformed about the new law, Marshall said the secretary of state should focus on why elections officials didn’t have voting records available to them during the Sept. 26 runoff for Attorney General Jeff Session’s vacated Senate seat. If those lists had been available at polling locations, officials could have blocked voters from casting a ballot in the GOP runoff if they had voted in the Democratic primary.

“Crossover voting should not have been permitted to even occur,” he said. “Instead of putting it on the backs of voters and effectively chilling the right to vote going forward for fear of doing something that gets you put in prison for five years, this is a strong message from the state that we don’t care about your right to vote.”

For his part, Merrill claimed that it’s unlikely that many of the 674 voters were unaware of the crossover voting ban because of signs and information given out at the polls. But Marshall said that is not enough.

“When I got to the polls, I don’t read the stuff that’s on the wall,” Marshall said. “The notion that, there is signage here and that takes care of the state’s obligation I think is pretty small-minded.”

When asked Monday whether the individuals should be prosecuted, Gov. Ivey was hesitant.

John Merrill CREDIT: AP Photo/Phillip Rawls
John Merrill CREDIT: AP Photo/Phillip Rawls

“That seems mighty strong for going outside the box, but people need to pay attention and vote according to the law for sure,” she said, according to local reporters.

Alabama Democratic Party Chairwoman Nancy Worley has also criticized Merrill’s decision, telling the AP that because the ban was new in this election, you “would automatically have more problems.”

But Merrill maintains that people who violate the law should be punished. He compared crossover voting to speeding on the highway, saying that a cop would not spare a driver from a ticket just because he or she didn’t know about the speed limit. “In our republic, ignorance of the law has never been viewed as an excuse,” he said.

If it turns out that poll workers were encouraging people to crossover vote, Merrill said those workers should also be prosecuted. He refused to say how many poll workers he thinks may be implicated because his office’s investigation is ongoing.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has said that his office will not comment on whether or not charges should be brought against the crossover voters.

If prosecutors do decide to press charges against even a subset of the 674 people accused of crossover voting, the fraud claims could bolster the Republican Party’s message that voter fraud is rampant and that restrictive laws are needed to prevent people from committing the crime. Currently, very few charges are brought for voting-related felonies, like double voting. The state has secured just six convictions for voter fraud since Merrill took office in 2015. But President Trump claimed earlier this year that millions of illegal votes swung the popular vote to Hillary Clinton, and his administration said they would come up with proof.

Currently, Merrill’s friend Kris Kobach, Kansas’ secretary of state who is co-leading the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, is attempting to come up with more evidence. So far, all of his claims of fraud have been proven to be false.

Merrill has given elections officials until November 6 to check the list of names and report any errors. “Unless our office receives notification from your county that certain voters should not be on this listing of crossover voters, we will submit the list as-is to the proper authority to begin investigation and possible prosecution,” the memo from the secretary of state’s office stated.

As of Wednesday, however, Merrill’s office was refusing to release the names of the 674 people he is referring to elections officials to the public. John Bennett, Merrill’s deputy chief of staff, told ThinkProgress the list will not be available until elections officials have had time to determine the legitimacy of each name and present their findings.

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