As Alabamians go to the polls Tuesday for a special U.S. Senate primary election, the state has the most registered voters in its history, including a record-setting roster of new voters.
“It’s unprecedented,” Secretary of State John Merrill said last week. The state’s tally of 3,283,573 registered voters represents a peak for Alabama, which has 3.7 million residents of voting age.
Of the 3.28 million, 773,727 are new voters who registered in the past two-plus years since Merrill took office in January 2015.
But, even as Alabamians were registering in record numbers, a voter “refresh” conducted by the Secretary of State’s Office in early 2017 has resulted in some confusion about voters being moved to inactive lists and concerns that the voter refresh will become a voter list purge.
Merrill said the voter record refresh is a process required by the National Voter Registration Act with the intent to keep registered voter lists accurate and up-to-date and to encourage voter registration.
The NVRA, in effect since the Clinton administration in 1993, also mandates expanded registration options – including voter registration at driver’s license and other public offices – that have helped Alabama reach more previously unregistered voters.
“Alabama is in full compliance, for the first time, with the National Voter Registration Act,” Merrill said. “We were determined to make compliance with voting laws a priority.” The refresh or reevaluation is supposed to happen every four years, something that has not been consistent in Alabama. “We added the license option, too, and other public offices. That was supposed to be done since 1993,” he said.
An Eight-Year Process
Alabama’s voter refresh process – which had to be approved by the Obama administration’s Justice Department staff during planning stages – began with non-forwardable postcards mailed to every registered voter in Alabama. The recipient was asked to review registration information and, if accurate, to keep the card. If the information needed to be updated, the voter was asked to write in the correct information. If the voter on the card no longer lived at that residence, the card was returned to the sender.
Returned cards are followed up with a second card that can be forwarded if the resident has moved. These cards instruct voters to update their information if they are still living in the state or to have their names removed from the voter rolls if they are not. All returned cards go to the local board of registrars, which is responsible for recording the changes.
The names of voters who have not been heard from after three months are moved to an inactive voter list. If an inactive voter is not heard from and doesn’t vote for eight years, or two four-year voting cycles, then that voter’s name can be removed from the registered voters list.
Inactive status does not mean a voter cannot vote, explained John Bennett, deputy chief of staff at the Secretary of State’s Office, “Keep in mind. There are levels to this process. It is not an instant purge,” Bennett said. “The effect and intent of the process focuses on clarification and accuracy, not cutting or reducing voter rolls.”
A voter who goes to the polls and finds their name on the inactive list will be allowed to vote, but they will need to update their information at the polling place. If the voter has moved, they should ask poll workers for help making sure they are at the correct polling place.
The exact number of voters moved to inactive status statewide during the “refresh” was not available from the Secretary of State’s Office on Friday. Merrill said that information can be gathered and shared after election day. “Right now, the election is our priority,” he said.
With the pending election, more citizens are checking on their voter status. “It’s encouraging and we urge people to check their status. The interest means they are intent on participating in the next election,” Bennett said.
Voters can check their registration status in several ways, including the new Vote for Alabama app for smartphones, now available at iTunes and Google Play. Citizens also can register to vote using the smartphone app. Another way to check registration status via smartphone is to use the mobile website at this link: https://myinfo.alabamavotes.gov/VoterView/HomeMobile.do
People also may check their registration status on the Alabama Votes website, at https://myinfo.alabamavotes.gov/VoterView/RegistrantSearch.do, and putting in their county, name and date of birth.
To check by phone or report an election day issue, call the secretary of state’s election line at 334-242-7210. Or voters can call their local board of registrars’ office. A list of the state’s 67 county boards of registrars is at http://sos.alabama.gov/alabama-votes/board-of-registrars-all-counties. Jefferson County’s board of registrars’ office phone number is 205-325-5550.