A view of the state capitol on March 6, 2015 in Montgomery, Ala.
Photo by Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty

Alabama official takes aim at ‘lazy’ people, voter registration

Updated
Over the last year and a half, automatic voter registration has made some important strides. As 2015 got underway, the policy existed in zero states, but after Oregon embraced AVR in March 2015, it was soon followed by West Virginia, Vermont, and Connecticut.

We should not, however, expect it to reach Alabama anytime soon. Despite the benefits of automatic voter registration, and the lack of arguments against it, Slate reported yesterday on Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill (R) explaining his fierce opposition to the policy.
Merrill explained his thoughts in an interview with a progressive voting rights initiative called Answering the Call. Asked about automatic registration for people who turn 18, Merrill responded, “I don’t think that just because your birthday comes around, that you ought to be registered to vote.” He then listed a litany of voting rights advocates – including Rep. John Lewis, Martin Luther King, and Rosa Parks – and declared:

“These people fought – some of them were beaten, some of them were killed – because of their desire to ensure that everybody that wanted to had the right to register to vote and participate in the process. I’m not going to cheapen the work that they did. I’m not going to embarrass them by allowing somebody that’s too sorry to get up off of their rear end to go register to vote … because they think they deserve the right because they’ve turned 18.”
Merrill added, “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.” [Update: There’s video available of these comments.]

This is almost a caricature of a bad argument. In effect, Merrill is saying that because previous generations had to sacrifice to get registered to vote, to honor their work, Alabama must continue to impose registration challenges – even if there’s an easier solution readily available – just on principle.

That’s bonkers.

I’m also amazed to hear Alabama’s Secretary of State argue that people are somehow mistaken if they believe “they deserve the right [to vote] because they’ve turned 18.” But in the United States, that’s actually how it works.

As the Slate piece explained, “[U]nder the 26th Amendment to the United States Constitution, turning 18 does, indeed, give an American citizen the right to vote. So Merrill’s statement that ‘just because you turned 18 doesn’t give you the right to do anything’ is not only contradictory to basic values of citizenship and democratic engagement in America. It’s also just plain wrong.”

Finally, Merrill specifically mentioned Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights pioneer, as a reason not to adopt AVR. The problem with this is, John Lewis is still around and we can ask him if agrees. In fact, we don’t have to ask: Lewis has already said he loves automatic voter registration and wants more states to adopt it.

I’ve been looking for months for someone on the right to make a compelling case against AVR. After listening to Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, I’ll clearly have to keep looking.



Alabama, Voting Reform and Voting Rights

Alabama official takes aim at 'lazy' people, voter registration

Updated