Progressive election integrity activists are already worrying Alabama Republicans will steal the December 12 special election for U.S. Senate, in which Republican Roy Moore, accused of sexual harassment by more than a half-dozen women, faces Democrat Doug Jones.
“Attached are suggestions that I circulated via Twitter starting in October for what Doug Jones’ campaign should try to do to detect and deter hacking of the voting machines and tabulators,” Jenny Cohn, a lawyer and Twitter activist wrote last weekend in a group email to progressive activists.
“This is what AL needs in order not to go under a wave of fakery fueled by stories about Bible-minded voters,” replied another, after the thread discussed the need to secure digitized images of every ballot cast if a recount was necessary. “I am still sure more voters will vote for Jones than Moore.”
While the technical ability to examine ballot images is a new and promising development among election transparency activists, the assumption that Jones is going to be elected because Alabamians have had enough of Moore’s extreme moralizing and alleged sexual hypocrisy isn’t at all certain.
That scenario would essentially require nearly every Democrat in the state to turn out for Jones, while more than half of the state’s registered Republicans would have to stay home—and even then some Republicans would vote against Moore. Such a scenario, while theoretically possible in today’s arena where both major parties are internally divided, is still a stretch. Why?
Alabama last elected a Democrat to the Senate in 1992; Richard Shelby, who switched to the GOP in 1994. Republicans have held a state legislative majority since 2010. Six of the state's seven current U.S. House members are Republicans. In 2016, only three other states saw more voters, percentage-wise, cast ballots for Donald Trump. Trump got 62.1 percent to Clinton’s 34.4 percent, out of roughly 2.1 million voters, nearly a 600,000-vote margin. (Jones would need all of those who voted for Trump to stay home—in a race that’s gotten nonstop national media attention.)
These pro-GOP electoral results, especially since 2010, suggest Republicans don’t need to steal an election when they have already hijacked the state’s voting system. That’s not to say Alabama’s GOP won’t do anything, including possibly tampering with vote counts, if record numbers of Democrats turn out and record numbers of Republicans don’t. But just focusing on hacking misses Alabama’s larger record of voter suppression that has dominated this decade’s elections.
Stepping back, Alabama Republicans, with few exceptions, have been at the forefront of GOP anti-voter tactics. Alabama was among the states the GOP swept in 2010, as a backlash to President Obama’s landslide two years before. That positioned the state GOP to impose a catalog of structural advantages and suppressive measures that have held sway ever since, and present the wall Jones' supporters have to surmount.
In 2011, Alabama's legislature aggressively redrew statehouse and U.S. House districts to forge enduring red supermajorities by segregating each party’s reliable voters. Democrats sued over the state senate gerrymander, saying it was illegally based on race. The U.S. Supreme Court eventually told the state to redraw its map. Alabama did, but little changed, pushing the Democrats this past spring to say they were going back to federal court. In the meantime, the districts with more reliable GOP voters remain.
The gerrymander was only the start, however. The lawsuit that gutted the federal Voting Rights Act of 1965 originated in Alabama. A conservative Supreme Court majority ruled in Shelby County v. Holder that the landmark law’s enforcement formula was unconstitutional, allowing the Justice Department to veto any change in voting procedures that the DOJ concluded were discriminatory, compared to the prior law or protocol. Days after that 2013 court decision, Alabama and other deep-red states began imposing new restrictions on the voting process.
Alabama didn’t just toughen voter ID requirements to get ballots at polling places; it closed dozens of state motor vehicle offices in so-called "black belt" counties, making it difficult to impossible for people to get the newly required state IDs. A lawsuit forced the state to reopen the DMV offices one day a month. Alabama Republicans also added paper proof of citizenship as a registration requirement for state elections—a separate and unequal standard seen in only two other states. These intentional barriers were aimed at likely Democratic voting blocs, including the poor, young people and non-whites. The gerrymander created GOP victories by segregating or splintering reliable voters, and the stricter ID and new registration requirements added to that by undermining voter turnout.
This was the voting landscape heading into 2017, with the state so securely in red hands that its legislature revised a century-old law banning anyone convicted of a crime of “moral turpitude” from voting. In May, the legislature passed the Felony Voter Disqualification Act, which listed crimes for which ex-felons were disenfranchised. That list meant a sizeable slice of the 250,000 former felons in the state, most of them black, could start the process to regain voting rights. Inquiries to the Board of Pardons and Paroles asking how many applications had been filed since May went unanswered. (Monday was the last day to register for the December 12 special election.)
More recently, Republican Secretary of State John Merrill has been making accusations that hundreds of Democrats illegally voted in the Senate special election primary, saying the guilty should be prosecuted. (Crossing party lines in primaries is illegal in Alabama.) While his loud accusations did not lead to a single prosecution, the American Civil Liberties Union state chairman said his high-profile threats may have deterred turnout. (The presidential election had four times as many voters as September's primary.)
The state ACLU is watching various factors affecting turnout, said communications manager Rebecca Seung-Bickley, as Merrill had stirred fears of prosecution. On the other hand, “some people [ex-felons] had been able to take advantage of the new law,” she said, but added the ACLU didn’t have numbers.
The ACLU is also concerned about voter purges, Seung-Bickley said. County election offices have been inconsistent with contacting infrequent but legally registered voters via the mail—the federal requirement—to alert them they could be removed from the rolls if they didn’t vote once every four years. As with crossover voting in the fall primary, there was some confusion that could deter turnout as December 12’s special election approaches.
Seung-Bickley said Alabama did not have any recent statewide elections that were followed by recounts. She said the ACLU was more concerned about known barriers to voting than potential electronic vote count chicanery.
However, election transparency activists across the country are not fretting about polling place barriers; they are more concerned about verifying the vote count. Alabama is one of the few southern states to use all ink-marked paper ballots—the only way vote counts can be verified if there is a recount and officials allow the ballots, or their digital images, to be examined.
But before progressives jump to the conclusion that no matter what, the GOP will steal the Senate election, they should see what they can do to encourage voter turnout, because the Alabama GOP has already demonstrably hijacked the voting process. Every step of voting matters, including a verified count, and a possible recount. But first things first.