Mallory Hagan, the Democratic nominee for Congress in Alabama's 3rd District, stood on the historic Macon County Courthouse steps in Tuskegee on Thursday and announced that she had made a troubling finding: Over 55,000 voters were either disqualified or labeled "inactive" since February 2017 in her district. Statewide, the number could be in the hundreds of thousands.
Backed by a legal team, Hagan explained that her campaign discovered this information from a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request made to the Alabama Secretary of State, John Merrill, who has before stated that he thinks voting should be a privilege. We reached out to Merrill 's office and will update this story when we hear back.
"Today, I tell our voters that we must be on high alert," said Hagan, a Democrat and former Miss America. "According to our most recent findings, more than one in 10 voters here in East Alabama have been removed from the active voter rolls. These voters are either entirely disqualified or have been marked 'inactive.' … We have reason to believe this number is much higher." She provided detailed statistics for each county in a document; according to it, 16,752 voters have been disqualified and 41,676 marked inactive.
To the voters of East Alabama, I say this: We have your back.
In response, Hagan announced that she's formed a Voter Protection Committee consisting of lawyers working pro-bono throughout the district to monitor and address voter suppression issues, as well as a voter hotline to call where "no question is too stupid." The hotline number is 334-521-5258, and it's available from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., and from 6 a.m. to 9 p.m. on Election Day. People can also check their voting information on the Secretary of State's website, myinfo.alabamavotes.gov. The last day to register to vote in Alabama is October 22.
"To the voters of East Alabama, I say this: We have your back," said Hagan. "If you fear your voice will be lost in the system, if you don’t trust that a government that has failed you could ever be fixed, know that change will not happen until we step up, even when the going gets hard. We cannot allow complications to derail the very elections which are the foundation of democracy. Check your registration status today, find your polling place, and get your ID ready."
Hagan is running against Mike Rogers, an NRA-endorsed Republican, in a historically red district that has elected Rogers over various Democratic opponents eight times. The vast majority of counties in the 3rd District voted for Trump in 2016. WSFA News reported that Rogers declined to comment on Hagan's statements about voter purging.
Secretary of State Merrill, a Republican, told AL.com that inactive voters have to update their registration information before voting on Election Day. He said they were placed on inactive status after they were mailed a registration card that was returned as undeliverable, and then failed to respond to a second postcard requesting an address update.
"They've just been placed on the inactive list, which means before they can vote they have to fill out the updated form," Merrill said.
Merrill has said he opposes automatic voter registration through agencies like the DMV, which is largely favored by Democrats, because it "cheapen[s] the work" of civil rights heroes, in a 2016 interview with progressive voting rights initiative Answering the Call, as reported by Slate. (For the record, Rep. John Lewis, whom Merrill cited, enthusiastically supports the initiative.)
"To me, that's no different than giving them a trophy because they’ve played on the ball team," Merrill said. "If you’re too sorry or lazy to get up off of your rear and to go register to vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don't deserve that privilege. As long as I’m Secretary of State of Alabama, you're going to have to show some initiative to become a registered voter in this state."
Efforts to make it harder to vote are nothing new in Alabama. Since key parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 were struck down in 2013, the state has enacted various policies that construct obstacles to voting, according to a New York Times report. Similar scenarios are playing out all over the country — from Georgia, where gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is leading the charge against voter suppression, to North Dakota — in the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, with voters of color disproportionately affected.
Sarah Baker, president and executive director of We The Action, a nonpartisan organization connecting volunteer attorneys with nonprofits, said that marking voters inactive creates unnecessary obstacles for them.
"This has a double impact of both putting voters on inactive status, which can make it more difficult to vote, and also causing people not to trust the election system and worry their vote doesn't count," Baker told Refinery29. "That can scare people into not even trying. It discourages civic engagement, which is a shame."
Baker praised the lawyers working throughout Alabama to help citizens have their voices be heard, and encouraged other attorneys to join the effort. "In this time of voter purges, foreign meddling, voter suppression, and disenfranchisement, lawyers can help ensure that the vote is equally accessible to all," she said. "Lawyers should use their energy and skills to help voters right now."
"Our legal team won't rest until everyone who wishes to is allowed to vote," attorney Fred Gray Jr., co-chair of Hagan's Voter Protection Committee, told the crowd in Tuskegee. "If it takes filing a lawsuit, that's what we'll do."