The recent primary election in Alabama mostly went off without a hitch. There was an exception – a big ugly exception – in Etowah County. Some voters in Etowah were given the wrong ballot and therefore voted for candidates in a district where those voters don’t actually live (and/or didn’t get to vote for the candidates in the district where they do live).
How could such a mix-up happen? Who is responsible? To understand it, you have to understand how voters get assigned ballots. This nightmare scenario happened because the county Board of Registrars simply failed to update their records after redistricting. But who or what is the Board of Registrars?
The Board of Registrars is the team of people responsible for registering voters (you send your voter registration card to them), maintaining records of all registered voters in the county (and which districts they live in), and providing precincts with official voter rolls for election day (so they give you the right ballot when you check in).
Every county in Alabama (except Jefferson) has a Board of Registrars with 3 members: one appointed by the Governor, one appointed by the AL State Auditor, and one appointed by the AL Commissioner of Agriculture (meaning that ALL Registrars – even in the bluest counties – are appointed by Republicans).
These folks are considered state employees, paid a per diem of $80 from state funds (with potential for additional per diem compensation from their county) and work an unknown number of days per year – depending on the needs of the county and (presumably) depending on whether it’s an election year.
This year, of course, they would have had a lot more work to do than normal. That’s because the once-per-decade redistricting process happened in 2021. The result of redistricting is that new State House and State Senate district maps were issued by the Alabama Secretary of State. Once issued, each County Board of Registrars is supposed to update their voter records so that voters are assigned to districts based on the new maps, rather than the old maps. But the Etowah County Board of Registrars didn’t make those updates. Even though the problem was brought to their attention before election day.
Just how big of a problem is this? Well, the change in district lines affected approximately 20,000 voting-age adults, which is 25% of all voting-age adults in Etowah County. That’s an enormous number of potentially erroneous votes in any election, and even more so when you consider that just 17,755 votes were cast in this election. Consider that, in this deeply flawed context, Mark Gidley beat Jamie Grant in the Republican primary for House District 29 by just 82 votes. What are the chances that the result would have been different if the voters he called, emailed, and sent flyers to were actually able to vote for him?
So what can be done about it?
- We need to know just how many voters were given the wrong ballot. We the People don’t yet have the data to say how many of those votes were cast in the wrong election, but the Board of Registrars has that data. They need to release it.
- These election results must be thrown out. It’s outrageous that the Alabama Republican Party certified these election results. The AL GOP is, after all, the party that drones on and on about voting “irregularities” in the 2020 election (despite the lack of evidence that it was ever more than a handful of erroneous ballots). Why in the world would they certify an election where 25% of ballots showed the wrong candidates?
- The Secretary of State should remove these Registrars from office. State law allows for Registrars to be removed for cause, and if there were ever a good reason to fire a Registrar, I’d say this is it.
- Maybe it’s time to consider putting people in charge of elections who are qualified and accountable, not mere political appointees.
Tabitha K. Isner is a business analyst, ordained minister, foster/adoptive mom, activist for government transparency, and was the 2018 Democratic nominee for Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District.