AL Secretary of State criticized for comments in voting rights documentary

Published: Nov. 3, 2016 at 9:57 PM CDT|Updated: Nov. 4, 2016 at 10:36 AM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Alabama holds a dubious place in history when it comes to voting rights, all stemming back to a struggle that culminated in the mid 1960s.

Now a half-century later, the man in charge of Alabama's elections is receiving criticism for comments he made in a new film.

In a clip released Wednesday from the film Answering The Call, Alabama's Secretary of State John Merrill makes clear his position on automatically registering voters when they turn 18.

"I think it's a sorry, lazy way out. And it show no initiative," Merrill said. "Just because you turned 18 doesn't give you the right to do anything. If you're too sorry or lazy to get up off your rear and to go register and vote, or to register electronically, and then to go vote, then you don't deserve that privilege."

The Southern Poverty Law Center's president pushed back on Merrill's statements, calling them not just incorrect but "disturbing."

"The Constitution of the United States, the 26th Amendment says the opposite. It says you have an absolute right to vote when you turn 18," said Richard Cohen, president of the SPLC. "Suggesting that only lazy people don't have the right to vote or shouldn't enjoy the franchise is quite disturbing given our state's history."

In the clip from the film, Merrill says automatic voter registration would take away from the legacy of Civil Rights leaders like John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr., who fought and died for the right to vote.

"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 their rear end to go register to vote, or now because of what we done, turn the computer on and register to vote because they think they deserve the right because they've turned 18," Merrill says in the film.

US. Rep. Terri Sewell seemed to take offense to this comparison, posting several tweets directed at Merrill. Merrill then responded to the congresswoman.

Merrill says the interview from the film is more than a year old and is only out now for political reasons.

"The reason it's being released now is because there are a number of people who are trying to promote Secretary Clinton's candidacy for the presidency, and they believe that information like this introduced at this time will encourage her base to become more active and interested in the campaign," Merrill said.

The director of the film denied this, saying the documentary wasn't about politics - it was personal.

"I started this film as a project to document my uncle's story of Selma in 1965," said director Brian Jenkins. "But as I got started, I became more aware of the ways in which voter suppression is still an issue today. So I wanted to use my uncle's story as a vehicle to investigate the state of voter suppression today in America. John Merrill has been tasked with the responsibility of overseeing a fair and democratic election in Alabama - I don't believe he is capable of that."

Still, Merrill says his position on automatic voter registration hasn't changed.

"If you make it automatic, that doesn't mean they're going to participate. If someone chooses to exercise the opportunity to register to vote, and they become a registered voter, the likelihood of them participating in the process increases dramatically," Merrill said.

The SPLC's president thinks that stance is the opposite of what the Secretary of State's office stands for.

"He would never talk about the right to bear arms as a privilege. He would never talk about the right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as privileges. He would call those things rights. Why he would call the right to vote something other than a right as protected as or important as the 2nd amendment is...I don't know. I don't understand it," Cohen said. "Secretary Merrill is a constitutional officer in the state of Alabama whose job it is to protect the right to vote, to extend it, to ensure that all citizens have that right. And to say what he did is, just to me, contrary to his responsibilities, contrary to his oath of office. I hope he reconsiders."

Merrill cites the numbers he sees in his office as proof that registering to vote is easier than ever in Alabama.

"We have registered 584,252 voters in the last 21 months, which is unparalleled and unprecedented in the history of the state. We now have 3,330,802 in the state of Alabama, which is the largest number in the history of the state," Merrill said. "We believe that we're going to break all records for participation in the general election and the reason we believe that is all these people have registered to vote. They're not registering to vote so they can stay home on Nov. 8. The highest number we've ever had is 2.1 million. We had that twice with President Obama in '08 and '12.  We expect that we're going to exceed that and go 2.3 or 2.4 million."

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