Alabama voters will get to weigh in on abortion and the Ten Commandments when they go to the polls in November, but the really tough — and sometimes confusing — choices will likely be down the ballot.
In Calhoun County, voters in November will get to decide on new rules that would ban bingo halls in residential areas. They’ll also be asked how Oxford and Southside should be treated in a complicated, years-long debate about county lines and police jurisdiction.
Culture-war issues were in the spotlight Friday when Secretary of State John Merrill held a ceremonial signing of proclamations assigning amendment numbers to the ballot measures voters will decide Nov. 6. A state constitutional amendment declaring that the Ten Commandments can be displayed in public buildings will be Amendment One; a measure that could allow the state to ban abortion if the U.S. Supreme Court permits it will be Amendment Two.
But those aren’t the only issues on the ballot this year. State officials say there are two other statewide initiatives and 16 local measures that will face a vote in one county only. That number might shrink to 15, if state officials can find a way to toss out one copy of a proposed Clay County amendment that seems to have passed the Legislature twice, both last year and this year.
“That’s rare, but it has happened before,” said Ed Packard, supervisor of elections for the Secretary of State’s office.
Here’s a look at what’s likely to be on Calhoun County’s ballot in November:
Bingo limits: In a measure that would affect only Calhoun County, local voters will weigh in on a proposed ban on bingo halls within 3,000 feet of a residence. Rep. Becky Nordgren, R-Gadsden, proposed the measure in 2017, after residents on White Oak Drive, near Southside, expressed concern about Big Hit Bingo, a proposed bingo hall on the rural road.
Big Hit did open, but only briefly, in 2016, before it was shut down by the Calhoun County Sheriff’s Office. The bingo hall’s operators said they had permission from the city of Southside, which exercises police jurisdiction in the area; county officials said that wasn’t enough to make the operation legal. The Wyoming-based owner of Big Hit sued the Sheriff’s Office over the closure, but the bingo operation didn’t open again.
“We lost the case in federal district court, and we decided not to appeal,” said William Sommerville, lawyer for Big Hit.
Attempts to reach Nordgren, the bill’s sponsor, for comment on the amendment were unsuccessful Monday. Last year, she told The Star the bingo hall infringed on the rights of its neighbors.
Nordgren’s election opponent, Democrat Jared Millican of Gadsden, said he was for allowing the county to vote on the amendment, but had concerns about the wording of the proposal.
“It seems really broadly worded,” he said. He said the 3,000-foot limit might block bingo halls in areas where residents find them more acceptable.
Hobson City Mayor Alberta McCrory said she supported the measure. With a population of a few hundred, the city has few businesses to generate tax revenue, but has been the site of more than one failed bingo hall.
“One of the things you have to be careful about is people from outside your community, who don’t understand your community, bringing in something that will tear up your community,” she said. McCrory said she didn’t believe the 3,000-foot limit would have affected I-20 bingo, the town’s most recent shuttered bingo operation.
Out-of-county police jurisdiction. Another Calhoun County-only amendment would, in essence, prohibit Southside from exercising police jurisdiction in parts of Calhoun County that are outside city limits.
Alabama allows cities a zone outside of city limits in which their police are allowed to enforce the law, typically known as the police jurisdiction or PJ. The Talladega County town of Lincoln upset some local residents a few years ago when it annexed land and dramatically enlarged its PJ — so much so that it reached into Calhoun County. An amendment in 2016 blocked out-of-county cities from enforcing the law here, but left intact the PJ of cities whose actual limits straddle the county line.
The November amendment bans those line-straddlers from having a PJ in the county — but it makes an exception for Oxford, which straddles three counties.
University of Alabama trustees. Voters across the state will weigh in on a ballot measure that would keep the University of Alabama from paring down its board of trustees even if the U.S. Census doesn’t go Alabama’s way in 2020.
The board currently includes 15 members appointed from the state’s seven congressional districts. That’s three from the district that includes Tuscaloosa and two each from the other districts, a formula that’s set up in the state constitution. The November amendment would require the state to appoint from the districts as they existed on Jan. 1, 2018.
“The concern is that we’ll lose a district after the next census, and will have to change the board,” said John Rogers, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, who proposed the bill.
Other state officials have sounded the alarm about Alabama potentially losing a House seat due to slow population growth.
Vacant legislative seats. Another statewide amendment would leave seats in the Alabama Senate or House vacant if a lawmaker dies or resigns after Oct. 1 of the third year of a four-year term. The bill would in effect end special elections to fill legislative seats in the same year those seats come up for re-election.
The Commandments. Amendment One on the November ballot states that “the right of a public school and public body to display the Ten Commandments ... is not restrained or abridged.” The amendment also says the display of the commandments must “comply with Constitutional requirements” and include other historical or educational items. It also bans the use of any public money to defend legal challenges against the amendment.
Critics say the amendment is useless. Courts have typically upheld the use of the commandments in broader displays, said Randall Marshall, director of the ACLU of Alabama, and school systems might still wind up paying the court costs of students who successfully sue.
“The amendment itself doesn’t do anything,” Marshall said.
Attempts to reach Sen. Gerald Dial, R-Lineville, who sponsored the amendment were unsuccessful.
Abortion. Also on the ballot is a bill that would declare that the state constitution guarantees no right to abortion. That doesn’t matter now, but could if the U.S. Supreme Court also declare that abortion isn’t a right.
That’s a big if, Marshall said.
“It would take a clear overturning of Roe v. Wade to make this happen,” Marshall said.
Attempts to reach the amendment’s sponsor, Rep. Matt Fridy, R-Montevallo, were not successful Monday.