Election skeptics seek Alabama secretary of state’s office

June 17, 2022 GMT
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File - This file photo from July 22, 2016, shows Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, one of two Republican runoff candidates for the office of Secretary of State. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)
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File - This file photo from July 22, 2016, shows Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler, one of two Republican runoff candidates for the office of Secretary of State. (Mickey Welsh/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

GARDENDALE, Ala. (AP) — The Republican runoff for Alabama secretary of state features two candidates who have voiced concerns about election and voter roll integrity while opposing the expansion of early or absentee voting.

One candidate, state Auditor Jim Zeigler, is endorsed by a key supporter of former President Donald Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was stolen and the other, state Rep. Wes Allen, is vowing to withdraw from a national system of shared voter registration data.

The two face off Tuesday for the GOP nomination for secretary of state, the state’s top elections official. The winner will take on Democratic nominee Pamela J. Laffitte, a law enforcement officer from Mobile, in November.

Interest in secretary of state contests across the nation has surged in the wake of the 2020 election as Republicans campaign on suspicions of voter fraud and in some cases deny the result of the last presidential election.

Zeigler joined the “America First Secretary of State Coalition,” a slate of candidates who continue to question the legitimacy of the 2020 election, and is endorsed by Trump ally Mike Lindell, the MyPillow founder. Several America First candidates have secured GOP nominations, including Jim Marchant in Nevada, a key political battleground. Another candidate, Jody Hice, lost in Georgia as Trump tried unsuccessfully to unseat Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger.

“I’m not an election denier. I’m an election questioner. There are many questions about the 2020 election,” Zeigler said in an interview.

Allen is a former probate judge who oversaw elections on the county level and a current member of the Alabama Legislature. In the House of Representatives, Allen sponsored bills to ban curbside voting as well as outside donations to election offices — legislation fueled by conservatives’ suspicions about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s donations to help election offices deal with the coronavirus pandemic.

“A core function of our government is to administer safe, secure transparent elections and we can do that. I just don’t think that we need that private money, infiltrating local jurisdictions that oversee our elections,” Allen said.

The League of Women Voters of Alabama, Black Voters Matter and other groups opposed the donation ban, calling it a possible voter suppression measure that would hurt the state’s poorest counties by prohibiting them from accepting grants and other help.

Allen also has championed a proposal to remove Alabama from the Electronic Registration Information Center, or ERIC. The system allows the 31 participating states to securely share voter registration data so they know if someone has moved to another state or died and remove them from their roll.

“They are outsourcing who is taking care of our voter registration information. So, on Day 1, I’ll start the process of getting us out of ERIC,” Allen said. Zeigler has said he would review ERIC participation but has not campaigned on withdrawing.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, also a Republican, said the push to withdraw from ERIC would actually undermine election security because of its importance in maintaining clean voter rolls. He said the system has had “zero instances” of known problems.

Merrill, who cannot run again because of term limits, said he is disheartened by the campaign trend to cast doubt on the integrity of elections and registration maintenance systems.

“I am concerned about it because it breeds potential problems in people’s minds. When that happens it can actually put people in a defensive posture and think if their candidate loses, ‘Well then the reason my candidate lost is my candidate got cheated.’ It could just be that you have a poor candidate, or your candidate is not very well funded or your candidate did not have a good plan for a political campaign.” Merrill said.

Allen was one of a handful of Alabama probate judges who stopped issuing marriage licenses to anyone to avoid giving them to same-sex couples after federal court ruled that gay couples had a right to marry. Couples had to go to a neighboring county until lawmakers changed the process. As a member of the Alabama Legislature, he also sponsored legislation, currently blocked by a federal judge from taking effect, that made it a felony to treat transgender minors with puberty blockers or hormones.

Zeigler was elected state auditor in 2014 and cannot seek reelection because of term limits. Although the role of state auditor is to keep track of state property and has limited official duties, Zeigler turned the office into a public platform to play gadfly to Republican administrations. In 2016, Zeigler filed an ethics complaint against then-Gov. Robert Bentley, accusing him of misusing state resources after audio leaked of the governor having a romantically charged conversation with a top aide.

“As the state auditor, I served as a watchman for the public against government waste, mismanagement and corruption. As secretary of state, I will serve as a watchman for election integrity and participation,” he said.

Both Allen and Zeigler oppose expanding voting beyond Election Day, such as early voting or allowing people to vote by absentee ballot without certifying an illness or travel-related reason.

The Democratic candidate in the race, Laffitte, said Alabama should join the majority of states that allow early voting or no-excuse absentee ballot voting. People in both parties are busy with work, child care and other obligations, she contended, and would benefit by having more convenient methods to vote. She said voter turnout is low in Alabama because, “we continue to run things as if we are running in the dinosaur days.”