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State sending observers to Mobile election; one candidate questions motive

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill speaks in Mobile on Aug. 17, 2017. Merrill said his office has heard concerns about Mobile’s municipal election process and will send monitors to the election on Aug. 22, 2017. (Lawrence Specker/LSpecker@AL.com)

Former Mobile Mayor Sam Jones says he’s concerned Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill may be trying to interfere in Mobile’s upcoming municipal election, and Merrill has retorted that anyone questioning his actions might have something to hide.

Merrill announced to reporters Thursday morning that he’s sending a team of observers to Mobile next week to look on during Tuesday’s elections. Merrill said he decided to do so after a number of people contacted his office with concerns. He didn’t say exactly how many complaints he’d gotten or from whom, but he indicated it was about a dozen. He said they came from a range of sources including supporters of the two leading mayoral candidates and from some state legislators from the area.

By contrast, Merrill said his office has gotten zero complaints about Birmingham’s impending municipal elections. While he expects it to be "hotly contested" as well, he’s not sending observers there on Aug. 22.

"We had a number of people who expressed concerns about the way the elections process is being conducted in Mobile. Some of that, I think had to do with some recent history, of the election back four years ago," Merrill said. "It’s one thing to get one or two comments, it’s another to get seven or eight or 10 comments from different people, black and white, liberal or conservative, it doesn’t matter, but when we continue to hear it over and over and we continue to have it introduced to us from various sources, we think it’s important to investigate it."

"We are going to have a team that’s going to be dispatched here … to ensure that all locations are safe, secure, that there’s no level of intimidation, of frustration, no opportunities for any kind of fraudulent activity or anything that would take away from an individual’s right to express their opinion on a candidate of their choice."

In Tuesday’s race, Mayor Sandy Stimpson faces three challengers in his bid for a second term. Jones, who Stimpson unseated in 2013, is the strongest threat. Several incumbent city council members also face challengers.

Merrill said that the concerns received by his office focused on three issues: Alleged irregularities with absentee ballots in 2013; improper conduct by poll watchers, or improper interaction between poll watchers and poll workers, also in 2013; and complaints about incorrect training of some poll workers in the current cycle.

Asked if the training issue had been fixed, Merrill said, "It’s been addressed. Whether it’s been resolved or not will be revealed next Tuesday."

"We are not here on a witch hunt," Merrill said. "We’re here to ensure that people have a higher comfort level than a number of people were having before they started making those phone calls to our office."

Shortly after Merrill’s announcement in Government Plaza, Jones held a press conference at Mobile’s Unity Point Park, where a statue of former mayor Joe Langan and civic leader John LeFlore honors their efforts to ease racial conflict in the city. Jones said he questions Merrill’s motives, his methods and even his legal justification.

Later in the day the Stimpson campaign would weigh in, saying it supported Merrill’s involvement. "Every campaign should welcome his involvement," said a Stimpson campaign official, adding that he could help head off problems that drew complaints from both sides in 2013.

Former Mobile Mayor Sam Jones speaks in Unity Point Park on Aug. 17, 2017. The statue in the background honors former Mayor Joe Langan and civil rights leader John LeFlore. (Lawrence Specker/LSpecker@AL.com)

"The secretary of state and I had a long conversation about that yesterday," Jones said. "I’ve got a lot of questions and really no answers to those questions. What I’m concerned about is whether this is another effort to suppress voting."

Jones said he believes that the law requires the secretary of state to have a sworn complaint before taking action. "To my understanding there is no sworn complaint, there is no complaint whatsoever other than that the secretary of state says he got some phone calls from some people," said Jones.

"I really question the authority of the secretary of state to get involved with municipal elections," Jones said.

Asked about the allegation, Merrill did not directly answer whether he did or did not have a fully documented complaint. But he said he believes the state constitution gives him the authority to "go wherever we need to have safe, secure elections."

He said his office previously sent observers to several other cities, including Tuscaloosa, Enterprise and Dothan.

Merrill declined to say how many people he planned to send and where they would be deployed. He said that if he revealed too much, it might help anyone planning to cheat. Jones said he believed Merrill was sending six people to cover Mobile’s 39 polling places. "That’s not realistic, in my judgment," he said.

Jones said the small number of observers could indicate that Merrill plans to focus on a small number of selected polling places, and that raises an issue of bias. Merrill said he intends for his observers to visit as many polling places as possible, and that they would not concentrate on any areas because of the particular constituencies expected to vote there – but he also said that his office would "concentrate on areas that have been indicated to us as areas of possible concern."

"It’s fine to come and monitor," Jones said. "That’s a good thing, if that’s the intent is. But the effect of it, in many cases, becomes voter suppression and the intimidation of voters. I’ve seen this before in some past elections where we’ve had certain political parties that did this, especially with senior citizens."

"The real issue here, this sets a precedent. In the history of elections in Mobile I’ve never known municipal elections to be monitored," Jones said. "I do have a problem with the secretary of state singling out Mobile."

Most elections held in Mobile County are managed by Probate Court officials, but municipal elections are overseen by the city clerk’s office. Given that Jones lost a tight race in 2013 and hasn’t been in power for four years, he might seem to be the candidate most likely to want some outside oversight. But he said he doesn’t think it’s necessary.

"Obviously he’s here to monitor the city itself," Jones said. "It seems to me Mr. Merrill is here to monitor the city of Mobile, and I really kind of take issue with that. I’m perfectly fine with the city administering the election, I’m perfectly fine with the integrity of the election."

"I think the city administration is doing just what they should," Jones said. "Like all other candidates, we monitor what the city is doing … I think the city is doing what they’ve always done, as relates to elections."

"I’m absolutely sure nobody with my campaign filed a complaint," he said. "We don’t have any reason to complain."

Merrill said that if anyone objects to the presences of observers, "there must be something there that concerns you about what’s going on that you don’t want other people to know."

Attorney Jerome Carter, a Jones supporter who attended Merrill’s press conference, said afterward that there are historical reasons for being worried that the presence of state observers could unsettle voters.

"I just think it’s critical that people don’t misinterpret his reason for being here and become intimidated through his process of trying to make sure that they can come out and vote," Carter said, "that they don’t misinterpret it as a form of intimidation himself. That’s what I want to make sure of."

"You’ve got to understand, in the black community, the African American community, there is a history of this state flexing its state muscle to intimidate and suppress the vote," he said.

Jones likewise said that even a well-intentioned effort could intimidate some voters – and he said he still isn’t sure about Merrill’s intentions.

"I’m not sure that the original intent is to monitor the election," Jones said. "I think the original intent may have some other things with it. I hope it doesn’t, but I think it does. And I’m really concerned for the entire city, not any polling place."

"We’re not the election police," said Merrill. "I want to make sure everybody knows that. But what we are is, we’re a resource that’s an objective, independent resource."

Late Wednesday afternoon, Stimpson campaign manager Candace Cooksey release the following statement:

"Right now our primary focus is spreading the message about the positive momentum Mobile has experienced under Mayor Stimpson’s leadership. However, as we prepare for Tuesday, it’s important to emphasize the importance of transparency and fairness in elections. The Secretary of State is the chief elections officer in Alabama; if he’s willing to provide manpower to ensure an equitable and just process, every campaign should welcome his involvement.

"Issues on- and leading up to- Election Day were widely reported four years ago.

"The City Clerk admitted voters had been removed from the eligible voter list after their children had voted by absentee ballot. Both campaigns voiced concerns over reports of voters being turned away at their polling places, and prior to Election Day the U.S. Postal Service launched an investigation into potential ballot-fraud.

"The presence of officials from the Secretary of State’s office will only help ensure no voter is intimidated inside a polling place and that every eligible voter is able to fairly cast a ballot in this election. A fair election process can only reflect positively on Mobile."

Note: This story was updated at 4:05 p.m. with comment from the Stimpson campaign.

James Donald Graves

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