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Democratic senator Doug Jones stakes re-election bid on threat to voting rights

Daniel Strauss
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Alex Edelman/AFP/Getty Images

Amid an unprecedented number of early votes cast in the 2020 election cycle, Alabama senator Doug Jones is staking his electoral fortunes on framing his re-election campaign around the threat to voting rights, especially in his native Deep South.

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Jones, a rare Democratic senator in a red southern state, has been sounding the alarm on his state’s burdensome voting restrictions. He’s been dinging his opponent over comments about a landmark voting law, and he’s arguing that in an age of high partisanship in America there’s a path for lawmakers to reinforce national voting laws.

Jones, the Alabama Democrat who was elected to his Senate seat in a 2017 upset race, is also calling for a new extension of the Voting Rights Act, the set of voting protections that were gutted in a ruling by the United States supreme court seven years ago. That ruling struck down a core provision of the law which required nine states to seek federal approval before changing their election laws. Those states were required to seek federal permission because of a history of enforcing voter requirements that dramatically affected minorities.

Jones has repeatedly bashed retired coach Tommy Tuberville, the Republican nominee for Jones’s seat, for failing to offer a concise position on the Voting Rights Act.

“It’s not that he couldn’t articulate a stance, he couldn’t articulate what the hell it is,” Jones said in an interview with the Guardian.

During a 1 September appearance with service organizations in Alabama, Tuberville was asked whether he supported extending the Voting Rights Act. His response suggested he had no idea what the law is.

“You know, the thing about the Voting Rights Act it’s … you know … there’s a lot of different things you can look at it as, you know, who’s it going to help? What direction do we need to go with it?” Tuberville said. “I think it’s important that everything we do we keep secure.”

Jones has been contrasting Tuberville’s remarks with his own position on the Voting Rights Act.

“I think they should do everything they can to get it extended,” Jones said.

Jones’s re-election campaign has also turned the clip of Tuberville’s comments into digital media ads. Jones is the heavy underdog in the race. Most polling has found Tuberville leading Jones in the traditionally conservative state by double digits. An October 11 poll conducted by Fm3 Research on behalf of the Jones campaign showing the senator leading Tuberville by 1 percentage point. Even so, Tuberville is widely expected to defeat Jones and Donald Trump is all but certain to win Alabama decisively on 3 November.

I just think it took the election of Donald Trump to see how much their vote counts

Doug Jones

Jones finds himself running for re-election in a year that’s seen record turnout in early voting, in part because of the pandemic. Over 66 million votes have already been cast, with no sign that that record breaking pace will let up. Jones himself benefited from high turnout in 2017 and unprecedented enthusiasm from African American voters in the state.

Now, as he’s running for re-election in a year where there’s both high voter participation across the country and an active discussion about barriers to voting, Jones is sounding the alarm on Alabama’s own voting requirements.

“The fact of the matter is Alabama has just a really burdensome absentee ballot process,” Jones said. “Most absentee ballots in the past have been by mail. And to do that you’ve got to get an application from the secretary of state or your local election official, fill out the application – which in and of itself is not too difficult – but then you’ve got to make a photo copy of your photo ID and send that along. Not everybody has a printer or a scanner at their home, and so that is burden number one.

“Not to mention the fact that it has to go through the mails, come back to you with the ballot, and then you have to take the ballot, mark the ballot, put it in their special envelope then put that envelope in another envelope that has to be signed by you exactly the way it is on the voting rolls. Which is not necessarily your usual signature, but the way you are on the voting rolls, and then you’ve got to have two people witness it or whatever. It’s incredibly burdensome.”

And, Jones said, if every step isn’t followed correctly, “that ballot is shoved aside and is likely not counted”.

While high-raking state lawmakers in other states have taken steps to compensate for voting during an ongoing global pandemic, Alabama secretary of state John Merrill has refrained from easing voting restrictions although he has allowed county courthouses to take early absentee votes. But there are only two county courthouses in Jefferson county, where the senator lives, which has, Jones said, effectively acted as yet another impediment to voting.

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All of that, Jones continued, is an example of how unnecessarily difficult voting can be in Alabama.

“And I think voting across the country needs to be a little bit more uniform. What we’re seeing in Alabama is that early voting can work if they could use the technology to streamline it and just make it early voting, I think that could help a lot. And I think that would get the numbers up, which is the goal for everybody,” Jones said.

Even with all that, Jones predicted that Alabama would see “a record number of absentee ballots cast in this election”.

The state has already beat previous records and there are still days before the actual election.

Asked if he is surprised about the record turnout across the state and elsewhere, Jones said he is not.

“I just think it took the election of Donald Trump to see how much their vote counts. I think there are so many people that stayed home, that thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win, or that their vote just didn’t count,” Jones said. “I think now what we’ve seen is an interest to make sure their votes count because it does matter.”