Local control of voter registration won’t happen

Published 7:08 pm Thursday, March 19, 2009

A push to give oversight of voter registration to the Shelby County Commission has lost all traction, at least this year.

The county commission first talked about moving voter registration from the board of registrars last fall. To do so, the commission would need the Legislature and voters to approve an amendment to the state constitution.

But the commission couldn’t find a member of the Shelby County Legislative Delegation willing to sponsor the bill.

That’s because Gov. Bob Riley has already expressed opposition to similar bills in Walker and other counties.

“We told them we would not be able to do it because of the governor’s opposition,” said Rep. Cam Ward. “His opposition led to the killing of the bill about Walker (County). There was no way we could pass that bill this year.”

Ward said Riley believes having voter registration controlled locally usurps the executive branch of government.

Currently, most counties have a three-member board of registrars. The governor picks the chairman, while the state auditor and commissioner of agriculture each have one appointment. Board members serve four-year terms.

County Attorney Butch Ellis said the commission was just looking for a way to streamline voter registration.

“The commission thinks it would just be more efficient, particularly in a fast growing county like Shelby,” said Ellis.

The county already provides the board IT help and maintains a lot of data used in registration, like census information, Ellis said.

“They have a very legitimate reason for wanting to do this,” said Ward. “Their main concern was that this last election, the county had to put in a lot of additional resources.”

Current board Chairwoman Carol Hill said she wasn’t familiar with the proposed bill and, therefore, wouldn’t comment on it. Hill is the wife of state Rep. Mike Hill.

Every board of registrars in Alabama except for Jefferson County operates underneath Secretary of State Beth Chapman’s office. Chapman said she respects the county’s effort but thinks local control of voter registration isn’t in the best interest of voters.

“I do feel it would be in the best interest of the state for counties to have some uniformity in the registrars’ offices and not have 67 different ways to conducting business,” Chapman said in an e-mail.

Chapman said her office trains registrars on election laws and new computer systems, provides legal counsel and accepts liability for the boards. All of this would mean additional expense for the county, Chapman said.

“If the commission is OK with that then I see no problem with them continuing their effort,” she said.

Ellis, a former state senator, said a county department could learn the election laws. “It’s just a small booklet of procedures,” said Ellis. “Whoever does it, whether the board or commission, there are certain things you would have to learn. But it’s not a very daunting task.”

The proposed bill has a provision that would transfer all property and funding of the board to the county commission.

Ellis thinks the bill will come up again in future legislative sessions.

“I’m sure this is an issue that will surface again at some time,” Ellis said.