On today's BradCast: Just days from Alabama's mid-term primaries next week --- in which Sec. of State John Merrill (R) will be on the ballot himself --- we share a wild, and often inexplicable, string of bizarre emails sent sent to me over the past week by the state's chief election official. [Audio link to show follows below.]
The weird story begins late last year, with the contentious and closely watched December U.S. Senate special election in Alabama between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones. On election night, following the state's computer-tallied results reported a narrow victory for Jones, Merrill inaccurately stated on CNN that "any candidate can ask for a recount and if they pay for it, they can receive a recount."
After UC Irvine's highly-regarded election law expert, Rick Hasen, noted on Twitter that Merrill appeared to be in error, that AL's state election code appeared to allow only candidates in NON-federal races to request and pay for a recount if the margin was larger than 0.5%, Merrill blocked him, rather than correct his own error or cite a different section of the state law to support his assertions. That pattern would be repeated as Merrill blocked other election law experts on Twitter.
Days later, the Secretary of State injected himself into a Twitter exchange I was having with others, to insist, repeatedly and inaccurately that Alabama's computerized paper ballot scanners "do not capture or preserve digital ballot images." In fact, they do, as made clear during a successful state court action just before the election. (My interview at the time with one of the organizers of the lawsuit is here). Merrill, however, was able to have the ruling stayed by the AL Supreme Court the night before the election. (My election day interview, with one of the plaintiff attorneys is here.)
Rather than cite evidence during the, extremely bizarre Twitter conversation [PDF], Merrill ended up blocking me there as well.
All of which brings us to last week, when a federal court in New York determined that public officials --- in that case, the President of the United States --- was in violation of the Constitution's First Amendment for blocking perceived "political opponents" on Twitter. (My interview with one of the plaintiffs in that case is here.)
Before we covered the ruling on a BradCast last week with University of Kentucky College of Law constitutional expert Joshua A. Douglas, who had also been blocked by Merrill (my interview with him on that earlier last year is here), I sought comment from the Secretary as to whether he intended to restore those he'd blocked, given the federal court ruling.
The subsequent string of bizarre emails [PDF] and phone calls I then received from the state's top election official is remarkable, and we share those on today's show, in the interest of Alabama voters who head to the polls next week.
In addition to steadfastly refusing to unblock the election law experts and journalists he's blocked on Twitter, Merrill unleashes a number of unhinged and often inexplicable rants in response to polite queries about both the Twitter blocks and whether Merrill has asked county election officials to set their vote tabulation computers to preserve scanned ballot images in the upcoming primary, in order to make public oversight of results somewhat easier.
At several points, Merrill's Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director John Bennett attempted to intercede via both email and phone. As I explain on the show today, the call from Bennett was very pleasant and he seemed to me, in truth, somewhat embarrassed by his boss' behavior. But he promised to get back to me after looking into both the Twitter ruling and the issue of Alabama's ES&S computer tabulation systems capturing digital ballot images. A note he sent shortly thereafter confirmed that they do. (See the PDF linked above for details.)
But, then Merrill blew things up again, with another string of emailed rants. Among the odd attacks from the emails in which the first term Sec. of State describes himself as "a nationally recognized expert in the field of elections", Merrill charges that I have a "problem...bigger than one that I have the ability to solve" (but refuses to specify what that "problem" might be), that I live with my mother (I don't), "has absolutely no idea what [I'm] talking about" (despite some 15 years of covering elections and voting systems as a journalist), and should try to "get a job with an elections program system" so I can "contribute to the discussion as an expert in the field". That's just a taste.
As noted today, I didn't even want to cover this at all, in truth, because it's largely just embarrassing for Merrill. But when I realized he was actually on the ballot next week, it seemed this was information that voters in Alabama deserved to know before making their decision. For the record, Merrill is being challenged in the Republican primary by Michael Johnson. On the Democratic side, two candidates, Heather Milam and Lula Albert-Kaigler. (She ran unsuccessfully against Merrill in 2014, though I can't find an official campaign website for her now.)
Also today: A new book by a longtime senior adviser to President Obama reportedly reveals that he feared sanctions against Russia before the 2016 election might have resulted in hacked computer tabulation systems (despite public assertions by the Administration before and after that Presidential results could not be easily manipulated by foreign attack), and election officials in a number of states are now reportedly very concerned about hacking --- or the perception that results were tampered with --- in advance of the crucial 2018 midterm elections (just as we've been warning, non-stop, for more than a decade.)
Finally, Desi Doyen joins us for the latest Green News Report, as climate change wreaks havoc with a number of deadly storms over the Memorial Day weekend...