Despite national attention, a presidential visit and millions spent on political ads and recorded phone calls – or maybe because of an electorate weary of political finger-pointing and name-calling – a low voter turnout is predicted for today’s U.S. Senate Republican runoff.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill said he expects 12 percent to 15 percent of voters will go to the polls, down from the 17.62 percent of state voters who cast ballots in the Aug. 15 primary.
The series of special called elections – set to select a replacement for the U.S. Senate seat vacated in February when Jeff Sessions became U.S. attorney – pose a special challenge for predicting voter turnout.
“You can’t really know what to expect based on what’s happened in the past” with a one-race special election, Merrill said. “There’s no modern precedent to draw from,” he said. Merrill noted the rarity of special elections called in off-election years with one race on the ballot. He also pointed to a new state law that bars voters who cast ballots in the Democratic primary last month from voting in the Republican runoff.
Normally, voter turnout “is more impacted by whether Alabamians feel compelled to vote for specific candidates or in support of specific issues,” said John Bennett, deputy chief of staff and communications director for the Secretary of State’s Office.
But, this has not been a normal race.
“It could be that most people are very tired of the ads and the media coverage and a lot of them are ready for it to end,” Merrill said.
They’ll have to wait a bit longer, though. After the runoff, candidates embark on 10 more weeks of campaigning leading up to the Dec. 12 general election for the Senate seat.
“It’s not over yet,” Merrill said.
The Aug. 15 primary vote sent the top two Republican candidates to a runoff, pitting twice-ousted former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore, who led the primary with about 39 percent of the vote, against former Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange, who was appointed to the Senate seat by then-Gov. Robert Bentley after Sessions resigned. Strange took about 33 percent of the vote in August.
In the Democratic primary, former U.S. Attorney Doug Jones garnered 66 percent of the vote in a field of seven other candidates and was named the party’s nominee.
Gov. Kay Ivey called the statewide election shortly after she took office, succeeding Bentley, who resigned as part of a criminal plea deal. Bentley had cited the cost of a special election, estimated at about $15 million, as a reason for waiting until the 2018 election cycle. But questions were raised about whether state law required an earlier vote. The decision to call a special election nixed Strange’s chance to serve out Sessions’ term through 2018.
The special election is only the second series of one-race special elections in state history, Merrill said, and the last one was 71 years ago.
That was in 1946, when Alabama’s U.S. Sen. John H. Bankhead Jr. died while in office. In a special called election, U.S. Rep. John Sparkman, who had been serving as House Whip, won the Democratic nomination and won the Senate seat unopposed. He served out Bankhead’s term through Jan. 3, 1949, and went on to be Alabama’s longest-serving representative in Washington, with 42 years in the House and Senate.
Merrill said Alabama’s senior senator, Richard Shelby, who is supporting Strange in the runoff, is nearing Sparkman’s record, with 38 years in Washington.
Other elections to replace a senator who had died or resigned have been held during regularly scheduled state elections. The most recent of those was in 1978, when Sen. Jim Allen died while on a beach vacation. Gov. George Wallace appointed Allen’s wife, journalist Maryon Allen, to the post that June. She ran for the office in November’s regularly scheduled election but lost to Donald Stewart.
No Crossover Voting
Another factor in possible low voter turnout is a new law prohibiting crossover party voting from a primary to a runoff. Democrats in Alabama had prohibited the practice by party rule since 1983; Republicans had not. Tuesday’s runoff is the first time the rule has been in place for both parties.
That means voters who cast Democratic ballots in the August primary cannot cast Republican ballots in the runoff.
The law applies to voting during the primaries. Voters can cast ballots for candidates of any party in general elections.
Electronic Poll Books
Another new election-related law allows the use of electronic poll books. “We promoted this amendment,” Merrill said.
At polling places where the electronic poll book is in use, a voter’s identification is scanned – instead of the poll worker looking for the name on reams of paper – and voters sign in with a stylus.
The electronic poll book system “makes voting easier and more efficient and can reduce wait time,” Merrill said.
Only three counties used electronic poll books in the primary – Washington, Autauga and Blount. But about 25 counties had some form of the electronic poll book in the 2016 general election. The goal, Merrill, said, is to greatly increase use in Alabama’s 2018 elections and to have the use statewide by 2022. It’s up to the counties to buy the electronics, he said.
Inactive Voters, Lessons Learned
The Aug. 15 primary was the first statewide election following a federally mandated “voter refresh” conducted by the Secretary of State’s Office in early 2017.
The refresh resulted in 340,162 voters statewide who could not be located being moved to an “inactive” list. That’s about 10 percent of the state’s 3,298,256 registered voters. Some confusion at the polls followed when voters were surprised to find themselves on inactive lists. In most cases, their information was updated and they were allowed to vote.
However, Merrill said lessons learned through the first statewide election after the voter refresh include the meaning of the word “inactive.”
“Voters and election officials have a different vocabulary,” Merrill said this week. “Voters consider the term inactive as meaning they do not participate in elections often or are being labeled a slacker or not interested. In actuality, the term inactive is provided for in the law, and only signifies that a voter needs to update his or her information.”
The Secretary of State’s Office did not have exact data on how many voters have updated their information and been moved back to the active rolls during the primary season.
Voters who wish to check their registration status can do so in several ways, including the new Vote for Alabama app for smartphones, now available at iTunes or Google Play. Residents also may register to vote on the app.
Another way to check via smart phone is to use the mobile website at this link: https://myinfo.alabamavotes.gov/VoterView/HomeMobile.do
Voters can also check their registration status online at https://myinfo.alabamavotes.gov/VoterView/RegistrantSearch.do, or they can call the secretary of state’s election line at 334-242-7210. They also can call their local boards 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 325-5550.
Voters also can call the secretary of state’s election line to report problems at the polls.