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Alabama election official sees lower turnout, higher write-in vote

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The state's top election official Monday said he is lowering his prediction for turnout in Alabama's December 12 special election, a potential measure of how sexual misconduct allegations have roiled the Senate race between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones.

In an interview with NBC News, Secretary of State John Merrill also said his office has just sent local election officials more detailed guidance for processing write-in votes, a result he said of a higher volume of inquiries than his office normally receives from voters across the state.

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Taken together, the developments speak to unpredictable nature of the race to fill the seat vacated by now-Attorney General Jeff Sessions with just over three weeks until voters go to the polls. And it signaled that state officials here are holding firm to plans to proceed with the election as scheduled amid reports that some national Republicans are talking about ways to potentially delay the vote.

“As Alabamians, we believe that its best for Alabamians and Alabama election officials to administer Alabama election laws,” Merrill, a Republican, said.

If President Trump were to contact him about altering the date, Merrill said he would hear him out.

“But I don’t see any circumstance today based on what knowledge we have that that’s something that would even merit consideration,” he said. “My job is to administer elections in a safe and secure manner. It is not to promote the candidacy of a particular individual or for a specific party.”

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Merrill cautioned that his prediction of a lower turnout or a possible surge in write-in votes were not evidence of any shifting advantage in a contest where the Republican candidate has a naturally large advantage. Moore’s political base has shown to be highly committed while Democrats have a limited political infrastructure in the deeply red state. And, he said, there’s been no sign of an “organized campaign” to write in a new candidate’s name.

Still, Merrill said that his initial expectation of turnout as high as 25 percent of registered voters has shifted to the 18-to-20 percent range, meaning that nearly a quarter million fewer ballots might be cast. Eighteen percent of the state’s more than 3.3 million voters turned out for the August 15 primary election while 14 percent voted in the September 26 GOP runoff.

The last day for Alabamians to register to vote in the general election is November 27.

Merrill did not have a prediction of how many voters might cast a write-in ballot. In 2014, when Democrats did not field a challenger to then-Sen. Jeff Sessions, 22,484 write-in votes were cast compared to 795,606 for the incumbent Republican.

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But on Friday the secretary of state’s office sent each of the state’s 67 counties a fact sheet answering commonly asked questions about write-in votes, with instructions to post similar information at polling places on Election Day.

Among the points clarified: A candidate’s name need not be spelled exactly right, but “close enough so that the name you write in is identifiable.” One could write in a candidate’s first initial and last name, but a last name alone would be insufficient.

Of note, given speculation of a write-in campaign for appointed Sen. Luther Strange, a candidate who lost in a primary election could still be written in — the Alabama “sore loser” law only forbids a candidate who was defeated in one primary from mounting an independent candidacy.

Write-in votes “will be counted only for live, human beings,” the guidance notes, meaning frivolous votes for cartoon characters or superheroes won’t count.

“A lot of people in our state would write-in Nick Saban,” Merrill noted, referring to the head coach of the University of Alabama football team.

While all eligible write-in votes will be recorded, Merrill said that based on a 2016 law the state will only tally ballots for such candidates if the total number of those votes is greater than the difference between the two leading candidates.

“We want to make sure that everybody knows that their votes will be counted if they write in a candidate,” Merrill said.