Alabama Secretary of State observes Russian elections, deploys sports celebs to boost voting at home

Alabama Secretary of State observes Russian elections, deploys sports celebs to boost voting at home
Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill, right, on the job as an observer in Russia's parliamentary elections. (John Merrill)

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill has been pulling double-duty on elections of late.

Last Sunday he served as an international observer for Russia’s parliamentary elections. Next week, his office will unveil its latest celebrity public service announcement designed to encourage Alabamians to register and vote in November, featuring “The Round Mound of Rebound,” retired NBA superstar and television personality Charles Barkley.

Merrill observed the election process in the southern Russian city of Volgograd. The Russian national election – to select members of the Duma, the 450-seat lower house of Parliament – was a landslide victory for President Vladimir Putin’s United Russian party.

“We had unfiltered, unbridled access and could walk in unannounced. There were no incidents I saw where people were heavily influenced to support one party or candidate over another.”

Merrill said he observed various precincts, and watched later that night at a central location where votes were tallied.

One polling location “was a two-room schoolhouse with no running water and no indoor toilets,” Merrill said.

“The thing most interesting to me overall was I saw some of the most extravagant living environments I have ever been exposed to in my life. And I saw some of the most disadvantaged environments I’ve been exposed to in all my life.”

Merrill said he was the only elected official among the 50 or so American election observers. Why?

“It was a lot of work,” he surmised.

From the time he started observing at 7 a.m. until the next day’s follow-up surveys, Merrill said he worked 23 hours with a four-hour sleep break.

Sports figures and voting

Merrill’s office next week will launch new televised public service announcements and posters urging Alabamians to register to vote and bring a photo ID to the polls. The latest spot features Barkley, the former Auburn University and pro basketball star and current analyst for TNT’s studio show “Inside the NBA” with Kenny Smith, Shaquille O’Neal and host Ernie Johnson.

A recently released video spot by Merrill’s office enlisted Tuscaloosa native and current WBC heavyweight boxing champion Deontay Wilder.

Last year, Merrill’s office tagged University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban and Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn to promote voter registration “because they’re the most recognizable people in Alabama,” Merrill said.

“This year, we wanted a couple of native Alabamians who can help us that are easily recognizable. One is the heavyweight champion of the world and the other is Charles Barkley.”

Merrill said the state had 2.8 million registered voters when he took office in January 2015, and now is just shy of 3.2 million.

“We’ve registered more voters in the last 18 months than we have in the history of the state of Alabama, and we have the highest number of registered voters in the history of Alabama,” he said.

Merrill said he didn’t know how much of the increase to attribute to using popular sports celebrities to get attention.

“I really don’t care whether it’s that, or the fact you can now register electronically or when you get your driver’s license or get it renewed,” Merrill said. “My goal is to ensure every eligible U.S. citizen who is an Alabama resident is registered to vote and has a valid photo ID.”

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