When James Bennett saw Alice Martin’s name rising to the top in Calhoun County’s Tuesday night election returns, he knew immediately what was happening.
Martin, a former federal prosecutor, didn’t make the runoff in Tuesday night’s Republican primary for Alabama attorney general, bringing in only 23 percent of the statewide vote. But in Calhoun County, she was the top vote-getter, picking up 37 percent of the vote in a four-person field.
“I think Calhoun County just elected our probate judge as attorney general,” Bennett said.
Martin the attorney general candidate shares a name with Probate Judge Alice Martin, a well-known local figure who wasn’t on the ballot for anything on Tuesday. Mistaken identity may be the reason for more than one odd result from Tuesday’s polling here.
In the week before Election Day, the state Republican Party disavowed Public Service Commission candidate Jim Bonner, a Phil Campbell resident who was accused of making offensive social media posts, including one depicting a Valentine’s Day card with Hitler’s image and the statement “my love for you burns like 6,000 Jews.” State GOP officials last week announced that they wouldn’t certify Bonner as their candidate even if he won the election.
Bonner got 52 percent of the vote in Calhoun County, beating incumbent Public Service Commissioner Jeremy Oden by 332 votes countywide. Statewide, Oden did beat Bonner, but by only a percentage point.
Both votes might seem like a middle finger to party officials, if not to tolerant people everywhere. But Bennett, the local party chairman, has a different explanation.
“I think it’s just like what happened with the Martin race,” he said. “People were confused.”
State party officials warned in the weeks before the election that Jim Bonner wasn’t the same person as Jo Bonner, a Republican who represented the Mobile area in Congress for 10 years ending in 2013. Bonner’s not exactly a household name on this side of the state, but Bennett believes some knowledge of the name lurked in their minds.
“They probably thought, I’ve seen this name somewhere,” Bennett said.
When The Star asked rank-and-file voters about Bonner, the other Bonner and the Alice Martins on Wednesday morning, most had the same response: Who?
“I never heard of it,” said Marcus Salter, who was shopping at the Lenlock Wal-Mart on Wednesday morning. Salter was among a dozen people interviewed at Walmart; only two professed knowledge that Bonner was on the ballot.
Most didn’t know what the Public Service Commission does. (It regulates utility rates.) One commenter said the commission “draws a paycheck.”
Bonner didn’t even get the local Jim Bonner vote. There are three James or Jimmy Bonners in Calhoun County, according to county directories. The Star reached a family member who lives with two of the Bonners, a father and son. She declined to give her name but said neither of them voted.
At the Calhoun County Administration Building, where Probate Judge Martin works, there was more awareness of the existence of at least one Alice Martin, and possibly two.
“My son used to sing with her,” said Wonetta Stinson, who was doing business at the county building Wednesday. She later stopped a reporter to say, “She can sing, too,” with an emphasis on the “sing.”
Martin is known around the county as “the singing judge” performing as a vocalist at various local events. According to a 2014 profile in The Gadsden Times, she recorded a single, “Charlie the Christmas Chimpanzee,” as a child and later did a demo that Lorrie Morgan recorded as a song.
Attempts to reach Martin — the singing judge, not the prosecutor — were unsuccessful Wednesday.
Voters might not like to admit they don’t know what’s on the ballot, but it’s not always shameful, according to the man who coined the term “low-information voter.”
“I’m a professor of political science, and when I look at the ballot, I’m confused,” said Samuel Popkin, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of California at San Diego.
Popkin first began studying voters’ decisions through the lens of “low-information rationality” in the 1990s. The term has caught on in popular culture in recent years, often with “low-information voter” as a stand-in for someone who’s uneducated or just plain dumb. But Popkin says that with a profusion of names on a ballot, voters often find themselves in a low-information bind.
“We’ve got a sheriff and a tax assessor and a water district and a sewer district,” he said. “There are no cues to help you connect all this to daily life.”
Popkin said the U.S. is the only modern, wealthy democracy that exposes voters to quite so many choices. Many other democracies ask voters to weigh in on five or six races in an election cycle, he said, with elected officials expected to appoint the people who get the work done.
“People think that electing everyone is more democratic,” he said. “But you have a diffusion of accountability and responsibility.”
Duplication of names, even when it happens at random, probably doesn’t help. In last year’s special U.S. Senate election, advocates for then-Democratic frontrunner Doug Jones took care to note that candidate Robert F. Kennedy of Mobile was not related to the famous political family. Kennedy didn’t win the Senate nomination, but he did win the Democratic primary for the District 1 seat in Congress on Tuesday. Democrats on Tuesday also rejected Chris Christie, who isn’t related to the former Republican governor of New Jersey, as their attorney general nominee.
Even Bennett, the Calhoun County party chairman, has dealt with name-recognition issues. He shares a name with the late Jim Bennett, who served multiple terms as Alabama’s secretary of state.
“Years ago, someone told me I should run for the Public Service Commission, because the name would help me get elected,” he said.