Tuesday is Election Day in Alabama, but at this point John Merrill doesn’t really have to tell you that.
“This is the most-publicized election in the history of the state of Alabama,” said Merrill, who as secretary of state is Alabama’s top election official. “The whole country is watching.”
In two days, Alabama voters will choose between Republican Roy Moore and Democrat Doug Jones in a race for the U.S. Senate seat once held by the U.S. Attorney General. The nation’s political press, and both major parties, have been watching the race with rapt attention for months. Now there are signs that Alabama, too, is paying attention.
Only 18 percent of the state’s voters turned out for the primary and a mere 14 percent for the Republican runoff in September. But by the end of last week, Calhoun County voters had filed more than 500 absentee ballots, three times the number filed before the runoff. County registrar Carolyn Henderson predicts that as many as one out of every three Calhoun County voters will participate. Merrill expects 25 percent turnout.
Paltry, perhaps, compared to the 70 percent who regularly show for a presidential election to the roughly 50 percent who turn out for Alabama’s midterms. But then it’s hard to find comparisons for this race, which is unlike anything the state has seen in decades.
It’s exceedingly rare for voters statewide to see a ballot with only one race, and only two candidates. It’s rarer still for a Democrat and a Republican to be neck-and-neck in a statewide contest.
And then, of course, there’s the meltdown that occurred one month ago, when multiple women emerged to accuse Moore – a well-known crusader for religious-right causes – of pursuing them romantically when they were teens and Moore in his 30s.
Moore has denied those claims, while the nation, eager to see who wins the first Senate race of the Trump era, watched, transfixed.
But the whole nation doesn’t get a vote in this race, just Alabamians. Getting them to care enough to come out on Tuesday is crucial, for both sides. Moore has strong following among social conservatives, but an inability to expand beyond his base has twice killed his bids for governor. Pundits and political consultants have long said that Jones needs heavy turnout among black voters, white liberals and a sizable chunk of disaffected Republicans to assemble a majority.
Moore, despite the accusations that trouble his campaign, has been better at getting out the turnout message, said Larry Powell, a University of Alabama Birmingham professor who writes about political communication.
“To drive turnout, a candidate needs to stress the importance of the election, and the importance of the individual voter getting out to affect the election,” Powell said.
Moore, after weeks of playing defense on sexual misconduct allegations, has turned his attention in recent days to casting the race as a crucial vote on abortion. Jones, unlike many past Alabama Democrats, has said he supports Roe v. Wade. Moore’s supporters point out that Supreme Court nominations come through the Senate, which at present is nearly evenly split.
President Donald Trump helped drive that message home by explicitly urging Alabamians to go vote for Moore in a Friday speech in Pensacola, Fla.. Jones on Saturday held get-out-the vote rallies headlined by celebrities such as the band St. Paul and the Broken Bones and Jason Isbell.
Still, Powell said, turnout typically hinges less on what campaigns say openly in the last few days than on what they do.
“The get-out-the-vote effort usually happens behind the scenes,” he said. “It’s really a matter of who’s more well-organized.”
Calhoun County Democrats last week put out a call on social media for volunteers to canvass neighborhoods, phone bank and drive people to the polls, all in support of a turnout effort.
“Statistics show that personal contact is the best way means of inspiring people to get out and vote,” read the party’s announcement.
At the local Jones headquarters on Quintard Avenue on Thursday afternoon, a half-dozen volunteers worked phones and computers, but local campaign leaders declined to answer questions about the effort, referring questions to the statewide campaign.
Calhoun County Republicans have said in the past that they, too, do phone banking, though county campaign coordinator Steve Guede last week seemed to nix the idea of offering voters rides to the polls.
“We’re Republicans,” he said. “Giving people rides, offering them snacks, we don’t do that.”
Republicans may not need as many tools in their box to win the county, which Moore won by 12 points in his last statewide race, for chief justice of the state supreme court.
“I think the biggest thing for most people in Alabama is the abortion issue,” said Jacksonville resident Tom Shelton, who posted a Moore sign outside his pawn shop on Pelham Road. Shelton isn’t a newcomer to politics – he represented the area in the Legislature as a Democrat in the 1970s before switching parties – and his feelings echo those of many GOP veterans who’ve made their peace with Moore.
“He wasn’t my first choice, but I’ll vote for the party’s nominee,” said Shelton, who cast a ballot for Mo Brooks in the primary.
On Quintard Avenue in Anniston, Terry Hay stood in Thursday’s cold air to wave hold a Doug Jones sign and wave at passing motorists. Hay, a retired former banker and FBI agent, said he’s never been this involved in an Alabama race before.
“There’s never been a race in Alabama that’s this important,” said Hay, an Oxford native who returned to Calhoun County in 2001 after living out of state for several years.
Hay calls Jones a “genuinely good man.” But he said he’s just as concerned about reversing the political trends of the Trump era. Too many people are burying themselves in media that tell them only what they want to hear, he said, and too many people are willing to believe the president when he lies.
“It will take generations to undo the damage,” he said.