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Alabama's Secretary Of State Shakes Up Voter Engagement


In the world of presidential primaries, New Hampshire matters. Iowa - pretty big deal; South Carolina - also important. Alabama - not so much, at least not historically. But Alabama's secretary of state is on a mission to change that. He's making a big push for candidates to visit the state several times. And as Gigi Douban reports from member station WBHM, he's going to great lengths to make that happen.

GIGI DOUBAN, BYLINE: One night, after a dinner last year, Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill was talking with Iowa's secretary of state, and Merrill asked him essentially how much face time do people really need with a candidate.

JOHN MERRILL: And he said, John, unless a presidential candidate comes to Iowa at least eight times, you're not voting for him, and I said, what?

DOUBAN: Merrill was astounded. In Alabama, people were lucky if they saw a candidate once, but that's changed this year. Why? First off, timing. Seven Southern states, including Alabama, are having their primary earlier in the season and voting on the same day, on March 1. That's not long after the early states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. It's being called the SEC primary after the football conference.

MERRILL: And so our voice will be louder and our vote will count more because there's more candidates, and we are the ones who will help determine who the nominees will be.

DOUBAN: To sell them on coming to Alabama, he tells the candidates we'll do everything we can to make sure your event goes smoothly. Part of that is keeping voters engaged and excited, like at a recent rally for Senator Marco Rubio in Guntersville, Ala. Afterwards, Merrill was shaking hands as if he himself were the candidate.


UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I'm Marilyn (ph) and this is Rachel (ph) and...

MERRILL: I'm John Merrill, nice to see you.

DOUBAN: Merrill's office sends out email blasts to media and lawmakers publicizing the events. So far, it's working. Ben Carson, Donald Trump, Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz - they've all been to Alabama multiple times.

MERRILL: We've had an inordinate amount of traffic

DOUBAN: Merrill also helps with the logistics of a campaign stop. Need a venue? His office will help. Need to fundraise? He'll put candidates in touch with the right people, even if it's groups who have given to state candidates who are similar. I asked Merrill whether this crosses an ethical line. He said, no way, this is part of his job.

MERRILL: Well, we are providing a service and we want to provide a service. Our service is we're putting you in a position to be successful in the state of Alabama.

ELAINE KAMARCK: I suppose he can make that work as long as he is in fact scrupulous about it and even-handed all around because after all he is an elected official.

DOUBAN: Elaine Kamarck is author of the book "Primary Politics" and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. She says it can boost the national political profile of a state like Alabama and increase voter turnout.

KAMARCK: If he can pull that off without getting somebody mad at him, I think it's actually going to be pretty smart.

DOUBAN: Keeping everyone happy means treating, say, Bernie Sanders the same as Donald Trump. Merrill says he wants all candidates to have successful campaign stops, like when Trump held a rally in Mobile, Ala., and it drew more than 25,000 people.

MERRILL: When you have a presidential candidate like Donald Trump on TV for an hour and a half uninterrupted with no commercial breaks, it says live from Mobile, Ala., you can't pay for the exposure.

DOUBAN: Merrill says one great moment so far was getting an email afterward from Trump's campaign manager that said not y'all but you guys are the best. For NPR News, I'm Gigi Douban in Birmingham. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Gigi Douban
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