clock menu more-arrow no yes

Civil rights leaders fought to make voting easier. An Alabama Republican didn’t get the memo.

John Merrill thinks guaranteeing people the right to vote "cheapens" the civil rights movement’s fight to, well, vote.

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill says that automatically registering people to vote "cheapens" civil rights leaders’ efforts to maximize people’s rights to, well, vote, Slate reported.

In an interview published Wednesday by Answering the Call, a voting rights initiative, Merrill was asked to explain why he opposes automatic voter registration, a move that could help fix America’s paltry voter turnout rate.

Merrill didn’t waver. First he name-dropped "civil rights pioneers" like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, noted his friendship with Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), and touted the fact his daughter interned for African-American Congress member Terri Sewell (D-AL). Then Merrill argued that granting people the right to vote "cheapens" these people's work by rewarding folks who are "too sorry to get up off of their rear to go register to vote":

These people fought — some of them were beaten, some of them were killed — because of their desire to ensure that everybody that wanted to had the right to register to vote and participate in the process. I’m not going to cheapen the work that they did. I’m not going to embarrass them by allowing somebody that’s too sorry to get up off of their rear to go register to vote.

To make his point abundantly clear, Merrill compared automatic registration to "giving [people] a trophy because they’ve played on the ball team."

For Merrill, automatic voter registration feeds into the taboo notion of entitlements, rewarding people with services when they didn’t put in the initiative to earn them.

There’s just one problem: American citizens who are at least 18 years old should be entitled to the right to vote if they meet the age and citizenship requirement.

Rather, the major barrier standing between people and the polls tends to be policies trying to keep select groups far away, as civil rights leaders demonstrated half a century ago.

Despite having the constitutional right to vote, African Americans in Southern states like Alabama faced insidious Jim Crow era policies like poll taxes and literacy tests that were damn near impossible to pass. In 1965, a 25-year-old Lewis and other civil rights activists of the time were brutally beaten by Alabama state troopers for attempting to March from Selma to Montgomery for that right.

The slew of voter ID laws passed to the fix nonexistent voter fraud that dubiously suppresses voters of color is one of the latest 21st-century examples. Others include some states like Alabama denying felons and people with mental disabilities the right to cast a ballot.

Historically, the right to vote has never been about effort. It’s been about access, and is likely one of the reasons Lewis has been a fierce advocate for automatic voter registration — even if he’s allegedly Merrill’s pal.

Merrill's dog-whistle politicking about "entitlements" doesn’t change that.