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Alabama is dramatically overstating the issue of voter fraud

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Alabama’s Republican secretary of state announced this week that his office had identified 674 cases of potential voter fraud in his state’s special election. He claimed hundreds of people voted in the Democratic primary and then the GOP runoff, in violation of a new law, and should be sentenced to five years in prison if they knowingly committed the crime.

Secretary of State John Merrill’s findings were reported by national media outlets and are already being cited by Republican officials to allege that voter fraud is a real issue.

The problem is, Merrill’s number was far from accurate. It turns out that he is overstating the scope of the issue by roughly twice the actual figure.

Alan King, the probate judge for Jefferson County, Alabama who oversees elections in the state’s most populous county, told ThinkProgress that a vast majority — roughly 360 — of the 380 names that Merrill referred to him as crossover voters in his county did not actually crossover vote and were the subject of a clerical error.

According to King, who is also currently serving as a Democratic commissioner on the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, the approximately 360 names came from one precinct in a Democratic-leaning area of the county. In that polling location, elections administrators typically cross names off in the voting book when a voter shows up to cast a ballot. Before the Sept. 26 runoff, the poll workers received a list of people who had voted in the Aug. 15 Democratic primary, and therefore would not be permitted to vote in the runoff because of the crossover voting ban Gov. Kay Ivey (R) signed in May to prevent members of one party from meddling in the other party’s elections.

With little time between when the crossover voting ban was signed and Election Day, elections administrators did not have time to figure out an efficient system to designate voters who would be ineligible in the runoff because of their primary vote, so they just crossed the names off in the voting book.

When the chief inspector with the secretary of state’s office looked at the list after the runoff, it looked as if those people had shown up to cast a ballot, when they actually had not.

“It was just a misunderstanding by this chief inspector,” King said. “No, they never crossed over. They never voted on September 26 and it’s just another instance of rushing into passing a law that’s predicated on a manual system and not giving the counties time to fully set up systems to protect voting in general and also to protect the voter.”

King said he has not yet shared this error with the secretary of state’s office, as he was given until November 6 to review his county’s list. But asked by ThinkProgress Thursday, Merrill said he had spoken with King and was aware, but unconcerned, that the actual number is far lower than what he originally reported.

“That’s the reason we sent the list to the counties — so they could check them out,” Merrill said. “That number was correct when we sent it out, 674, and that number will be reduced every time we get a report back from the counties.”

Merrill said he anticipated that the original number would be inaccurate and he is not worried that sharing the 674 figure overstated the problem.

Alabama Probate Judge Alan King CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Martin
Alabama Probate Judge Alan King CREDIT: AP Photo/Dave Martin

But King questioned why Merrill would release the number before counties had the chance to review the names, which they are currently doing before referring actual violators to prosectors. He also said he disagrees with Merrill’s comments to ThinkProgress on Wednesday that people who violated the crossover voting ban should be imprisoned for 5 years and pay a $15,000 fine, the maximum allowable punishment for the low-level felony violation.

“Personally, I don’t think it’s appropriate to use scare tactics or threaten voters,” he said, noting that voter turnout in the United States is low enough already. “In some circles, we’re doing almost everything we can as a nation to discredit people from voting, to create barriers for them to vote, and I don’t agree with that.”

He added that it’s likely that many Alabama voters did not know about the crossover voting ban, given that it was rushed through the legislature and signed into law without time before the election. Despite Merrill’s claim that ignorance of the law is not an excuse, King said that unknowing voters shouldn’t be punished for casting a ballot.

“The reality is that people are busy, people don’t focus on a lot of things in this world, and now you’re going to lower the boom on people?” he asked, laughing. “I think that’s a little severe.”

King, who has been an outspoken critic of the way President Trump’s voting commission is conducting its business, said he believes that the idea of massive voter fraud is an “urban legend.”

“There may be some instances of voting irregularities by both Republicans and Democrats in isolated instances throughout this nation,” he said. “Do I think there’s any widespread conspiracy, so to speak, in voting? No, I don’t think so.”

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