Spotlight shines on Alabama Secretary of State race as views over 2020 election, and Trump, loom large – AL.com

Alabamians who distrust the vote-counting in the presidential election gathered at the State Capitol in Montgomery today.
Arizona state Rep. Mark Finchem is affiliated with far-right groups peddling conspiracies about the 2020 election. He pushed for a Republican-ordered review of the vote in Democratic-leaning counties. He sponsored legislation that would treat voters’ ballots as public records searchable online.
And now he is running for election to become Arizona’s next Secretary of State – the office that oversees elections.
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Other Republican candidates who falsely claim that former President Donald Trump was cheated out of the 2020 election are also running in secretary of state races throughout the nation. Those candidates are being labeled in news stories and by certain groups as election “doubters and deniers.”
Of the four Alabama Republicans running for the open Secretary of State’s race this year, only one – state Rep. Wes Allen, R-Troy – was identified as an “election denier” by States United Action, a nonpartisan group that is overseeing races across the country.
Allen’s inclusion on the list is based on past social media posts, including one in which he urges Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall to “stand firm” in the state’s inclusion in the 2020 Texas lawsuit challenging the election results. The U.S. Supreme Court tossed that case out.
But of the four candidates interviewed this week by AL.com, only one – Ed Packard of Prattville, who worked 24 years in the Alabama Secretary of State’s office – claims there is no evidence to support the notion that Trump won the election.
Trump won Alabama in 2020 by a wide margin – 62% to President Joe Biden’s 36.6%. But concerns about the 2020 election among Alabama Republicans have mostly focused elsewhere in the so-called “swing states” where Biden won by narrow margins: Georgia, Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Nevada.
“I have not seen any evidence there was enough fraud or glitches or whatever you want to call it, to flip the election,” said Packard. “My opinion is based on what I’ve seen and (Trump) does not have a claim on the presidency.”
The other candidates have different views than Packard but are not saying whether they believe Trump was robbed because of voter fraud.
Those include:
Rep. Wes Allen of Troy has announced plans to run for Alabama Secretary of State.Wes Allen
Allen, a former Pike County probate judge, claims the “election process did not work” in other parts of the country, though he believes it worked fine in Alabama. Allen, though, recently caught Merrill’s ire for accusing the state of wasting $25,000 to participate in the Electronic Registration Information Center (ERIC) to maintain accuracy of voter information rolls. Allen claims the system is financed by billionaire Democratic supporter George Soros, while Merrill said that Soros “has never been to an ERIC board meeting,” and has not role in its operations.
Alabama State Auditor Jim Zeigler holds a press conference on Jan. 28, 2019, to talk about his plan to fund highway construction in Alabama without a tax increase. Zeigler also answered questions about posting photos of Arizona Sen. Kyrsten Sinema on his Facebook page.
Alabama Auditor Jim Zeigler, who entered the race just before the January 28 deadline, said he intends to make a “major speech” about his views on the 2020 contest on February 16 in Huntsville during a Madison County Republican Women’s luncheon. He said that “extremely concerning questions remain” about election administration in Georgia and Arizona, and he claims there were some “preliminary information” to suggest “strange voting returns” in several conservative-leaning counties in Alabama. Zeigler said he plans to meet with MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, an outspoken supporter of Trump and believer that the election was unjustly awarded to Biden, in the coming weeks.
Christian Horn, candidate for Alabama Secretary of State (photo provided by candidate).
Christian Horn, chairman of the Tennessee Valley Republican Club and a former University of Michigan football player, said Americans want election audits and “absolutes” when it comes to the 2020 elections, and is hopeful there is never a repeat of 2020. He said that Alabama needs a “cool and calm approach” toward managing election systems. He said he believes there are enough professionals in Montgomery to determine if the state should be using ERIC.
Horn, though, said that voters want a full picture of what happened in 2020.
“I think the truth of the matter is that we, as Americans, must find out absolutes,” said Horn. “We want to know who won the game. We want to know who lost the game. It’s not about whether Trump should’ve won the election. The issue is truly that our democracy is being torn apart because we don’t know the answer. Right now, Joe Biden is the President of the United States. In 2022, we are poised and ready for the Republican Party to win this election and … get back into office.”
He added, “My role is to make sure we don’t look back at the past. We need to continue to find out what the truth is, and I think any states across the country are tightening loopholes. We need to harden the system.”
Ed Packard, candidate for Alabama Secretary of State (photo submitted by candidate).
Packard, himself, said while he doesn’t believe there is evidence showing Trump won, there is a need to run a “robust” performance audit following elections. He said that Alabama is one of six states that does not require a post-election audit. The Alabama Legislature did approve a bill earlier this year allowing for a limited audit of future elections, beginning in 2022.
“I don’t play politics with election administration,” Packard said.
Experts believe that politics is expected to seep into a race that used to be noncontroversial.
“I think Alabama is a place now where it wants outspoken leadership,” said Jon Gray, a GOP political strategist based in Mobile. “There was a time in our history where we wanted everyone to be respectful and peaceful to each other and there was a time when you agreed to disagree with each other. Go back to Bush and Obama. We are not the same people we were. Now in the Trump era, there is no more holding your tongue anymore.”
Polling suggests that Republican candidates will have an audience if they deny the election outcome, or advocate for stricter rules on voting.
A recent NPR/Ipsos poll found that among Trump voters, 52% believe “major fraudulent voting” changed the outcome of the race. A Yahoo News/YouGov poll taken last month shows that 6 in 10 of Republican and Republican-leaning independents say they will not vote for a candidate in any election who claims Biden won the presidency “fair and square.”
The situation could be heightened during a GOP primary inside ruby red Alabama where all statewide office holders are Republican, and the Alabama Legislature is ruled by a supermajority of Republicans. Trump won Alabama by 25 points and remains popular among conservative voters who hold significant sway over Alabama’s election outcomes.
Related: Deep in Trump country, Alabamians remain defiant in support of president
“I think it unfortunately incentivizes Republican candidates to embrace the false claims about the election even if they themselves do not believe them,” said Regina Wagner, assistant professor of political sciences at the University of Alabama. “I also think it makes it a lot harder for those Republican candidates who want to stick with the facts and not embrace the false stolen election narrative to win a primary. It definitely seems politically risky for a Republican right now to reject this narrative.”
Gray said that narrative during this year’s campaign will gravitate toward policies that harden, not loosen, election law.
“I think the voters will look for someone who will put additional locks on the door,” he said.
The politicization of the office is troublesome to current Secretary of State John Merrill, a Tuscaloosa Republican who is term limited from seeking re-election this year. He was one of two Republican secretaries cited in a New York Times story who expressed concerns over candidates criticizing how the 2020 elections were administered.
“It’s important for our voters to choose their candidate who best represents them and their ideas and philosophies and also who is the individual that has the best handle on what the actual issues are related to the office and who is not someone trying to draw attention to himself simply trying to raise their name recognition level,” Merrill said. “That is dangerous in the Secretary of State.”
He added, “You can get away with that in other offices, but if you do that in the Secretary of State’s race, it could put the state in jeopardy. It’s a major concern and should be treated as such.”
The office, by way of tradition, is treated more bureaucratic than political, in that it handles more mundane activities such as storing thousands of state documents and serving as the governor’s personal notary public. According to Merrill, 35% of the office’s duties are election-related while 60% is “directly related to business services.”
“The typical citizen in the state thinks about the election aspects of the things that go into the office of the Secretary of State,” Merrill said. “It’s much more than that.”
But the 2020 election, and Trump’s reaction to it, has jolted secretaries of states around the country. Money is also pouring into races in the so-called battleground states. In Georgia, U.S. Rep. Jody Hice, who fought to overturn the 2020 presidential results and who is backed by Trump, raised more than $575,000 in donations. His opponent, incumbent Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger – who resisted pressure from Trump to change the vote count in Georgia, garnering criticism from the former president – has raised around $100,000.
Allen has raised, by far, the most money in the Alabama contest. His campaign has brought in $158,685 and has over $117,000 cash on hand. Horn has over $16,900 on hand while Zeigler, the newcomer to the rase, has $16,800. Packard trails with $1,800.
Pamela Laffitte, candidate for Alabama Secretary of State (photo courtesy of candidate).
Pamela Laffitte of Mobile, a corrections sergeant within the Mobile County Sheriff’s Department, is the only Democratic candidate in the race and has not yet recorded any campaign fundraising activity. She believes there are already enough “checks and balances” in place with law enforcement, probate judges and the state to ensure election integrity.
But when it comes to allegations of voter fraud from Republicans, Laffitte said it has more to do with “individuals or constituents who are disappointed in the results of a campaign because their candidate did not get the nod to be the nominee or the selection.”
She said it’s important for voters to “trust the process,” and believes that Alabama – due to its history in the voting rights struggles of the 1960s – will always have a spotlight on it.
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill speaks at a "We the People" rally on Saturday, December 12, 2020, at the Town Center Park in Spanish Fort, Ala. Attendees showed support for President Donald Trump and first responders and rallied for election integrity. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).
Merrill said he believes the attention paid on the race this year will be more than “ever before in the history of the state of Alabama,” and he’s proud of the work his office has done in “raising the level of awareness of what the Secretary of State does.”
None of the candidates have been directly critical of Merrill or the job he has done as Secretary of State since 2015.
Allen – who released his concerns about the office’s ERIC system last week – defends the Secretary of State in light of Lindell’s accusations last year that hundreds of thousands of Alabama votes were flipped from Trump to Biden during the 2020 contest.
Trump got 1.4 million votes in Alabama, compared to more than 849,000 for Biden during the 2020 contest.
“I was a probate judge for nearly 10 years, and I know Alabama’s voting machines like the back of my hand,” Allen said. “They are not connected to the Internet and cannot be connected to the Internet. Mike Lindell’s accusations about our voting process here in Alabama is simply unfounded. There is absolutely no way to connect our machines to the Internet and ‘flip’ votes as he claimed. I understand that there are states with Internet-capable machines, but we are not one of those states.”
Allen added, “I have been very clear that I believe Alabama’s elections were conducted in a safe and secure manner in 2020 but there were other states that had a great deal of chaos and confusion. It is vital that Americans know that only legal ballots are being cast and that the ballots are being counted in a legal way and when things like the unconstitutional mail ballots in Pennsylvania or the counting chaos in Georgia happens, it makes it hard for Americans to trust our election system and, as a result, weakens our Republic.”
Packard, who retired from the Secretary of State’s office in December, also takes aim at Lindell. He said that the MyPillow CEO’s accusations “were flat out wrong” and pointed to a claim in which Lindell believed “20 or more people were voting from the same address” in Alabama. Packard said that address was an apartment complex.
Asked if he thought his views might be tough to defend in the current political environment, Packard said, “So far, I have not heard any pushback. But it may be that they are holding their tongues and won’t vote for me. I’ve been doing this for a long time. I’ve provided technical support and assistance to over 400 elections.”
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