Secretary of State pleads for passage of elections bill

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Jul. 16—Legislation introduced in the Alabama Senate in 2017 is expected to reduce the chances that ballot confusion that affected the recent election in District 29 could happen again.

HB137, introduced by state Sen. Jimmy Holley and state Rep. Alan Baker, upon request of Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, would amend Alabama Code 17-3-2, which describes the responsibility and management of the registrars who conduct elections.

Merrill has previously said he thought that better training of election officials would result in more accurate lines being drawn for all Alabama House Districts. He based his belief on information gathered from a task force that he created earlier in 2017. It included registrars, probate judges, circuit clerks, legislators, sheriffs and community interest groups.

The task force "developed comprehensive legislation to evaluate, assess, and implement changes to the responsibility of the position of registrar in Alabama," Merrill wrote in the email he sent out Thursday to the press and election officials.

The email addressed the need for a second look at HB137 and its emphasis on the need for training registrars to use GIS Systems, which is a digital mapping system such as Google Maps.

Better training would allow officials to create more exact maps of districts to show exactly who lives inside them and who does not. The most recent lines were adopted when Gov. Kay Ivy signed the proposal into law on Nov. 4 of last year, after it had been voted on by both of Alabama's legislative houses. It appears that Merrill foresaw some of the problems that arose in the May 24 primary election.

Rep. Barbara Boyd, D-Anniston, was on the redistricting committee.

"The first statement I made," she said, "is that I hope we get things right without going to court."

The lines adopted last November led to confusion, and then to election challenges.

After the primary, several candidates in Districts 27, 28 and 29 realized their names had been omitted from the ballots, even though Merrill's office had pointed out errors that existed on the ballots prior to their publication.

In the email, Merrill said the confusion and errors led to his recent request for the resignations of the three registrars where the "most egregious" problems arose. Those resignations were submitted.

Specifically for Calhoun County voters who share District 29 with parts of Etowah County, the errors left off candidate Jamie Grant's name for some of his supporters who had been told by the Board of Registrars that they lived in District 29. Grant challenged the results, but Mark Gidley was named the winner in a June 25 hearing led by Republican Party officials.

Gidley said little during the leadup to the challenge, but he agrees the primary did not go smoothly.

"There was so much back and forth," he said Monday afternoon. "There's not a person who does not agree that there were some errors, and that things were not fixed as they were supposed to be fixed."

The potential for errors is something HB137 is intended to minimize. Merrill told the legislators that its passage would improve the registrar-appointment process and increase transparency and accountability.

State Rep. Steve Hurst, R-Munford, recalled recently that during the original consideration of the bill, good points about the bill were obscured because certain legislators believed that those who supported the bill were essentially calling their registrars inept. Hurst indicated the failure set the stage for the primary problems and revealed the need for improvement.

"As long as there is fear that some voted and some didn't get to, the problems will not go away," Hurst added.

Prior to the primary, Merrill's office said it would pay each county's licensing fees to switch from paper maps to the computer-driven GIS system that can pinpoint where the new district lines are.

Etowah County Probate Judge Scott Hassellsaid his county's board of registrars will accept the offer of the licensing fees, which will save thousands of dollars.

"There is no reason that any registrars should use a paper map and a magnifying glass to determine a district's lines," he said.

Merrill's email also asked the Legislature to provide the funding to re-check the drawing of the district's lines.

Hassell said one of his office's goals is to do anything to make the process easier.

"We want the folks not only to vote, but also to understand," Hassell said. "This is voter education. We need to know where we live and be able to ask questions."