“As long as I’m secretary of state of Alabama,” John Merrill proclaimed in 2016, “you’re going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state.” Merrill, a Republican, is still secretary of state. But Tuesday’s special election proved his declaration was incomplete. In Alabama, showing initiative isn’t always sufficient to become a registered voter. Under Merrill’s regime, a multitude of voters—most of them in majority-black counties—struggled to cast their ballots in the race between Roy Moore and Doug Jones. Unprepared poll workers spread misinformation. Bewildered citizens were forced to fill out confusing, redundant paperwork. Qualified voters were told they could not vote. And the state may well have run afoul of federal law.
Shortly after polls opened in Alabama, many voters reported being told that they had been moved to the “inactive voter list.” This additional hurdle to casting a ballot seems to have resulted from a project Merrill undertook this year to “refresh” Alabama’s voter lists. According to Merrill’s office, the state government first sent nonforwardable postcards to all 3.3 million Alabama voters containing their voter registration information. If the information was accurate, voters were asked to merely “retain” the card. If the information was inaccurate, they were asked to mark return to sender and drop it back in the mail. The state then sent a second, forwardable postcard to everyone whose first card was returned by the post office as undeliverable. That second postcard asked voters to update their information.
Alabamians who did not respond to this second postcard were, per Merrill’s plan, to be placed on the inactive list. Inactive voters can still cast a ballot on election day, but they are required to reidentify themselves and update their information at the polls. If inactive voters don’t cast a ballot for four years, they may be purged from the rolls. Inactivity, then, is essentially the beginning of the removal process.