The Senate race in Alabama to fill the seat once occupied by Jeff Sessions is a microcosm of last year’s presidential race. On one side we have Doug Jones, a sane, good-natured liberal; on the other we have Roy Moore, a rightier-than-right-wing Republican who believes, among other things, that homosexuality should be illegal, Muslims should not serve in Congress, and that 9/11 was “God’s punishment” on America (oh, also, you may have heard that he picks up teenage girls at malls.) And just like in 2016, the media has inordinately focused on Moore’s extremism while remarking little on Jones’s virtues – the most notable being his prosecution of the KKK members who bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in 1963, killing four young black girls.
With the polls not determining anything either way, it’s too tough to say who will win, but a Jones victory hinges on a few disparate factors. One of them is weather – a blizzard or a rainstorm would depress Democratic turnout, and it appears to be pretty moderate throughout the state today, despite some coldness in the north. Another is the aggressiveness of the Democrats’ Get out the Vote effort, which has been strong, especially since Moore has almost no campaign presence in the state and has barely held any rallies (although this did not hurt Donald Trump.) A third, as I stated in my article last week, depends on country-club Republicans crossing party lines out of fear that Moore will hurt business in their state. Any one of these, or all three of them, could make the difference, and if Jones wins, his strategy will become a blueprint for Southern Democrats. But if Moore wins, it will will be for the exact same reasons Trump won: voter suppression and Russian interference.
As one of the reddest of the red states, Alabama has some of the strictest voter ID laws in the country. Its Secretary of State, John Merrill, has made voter registration harder since taking office in 2015. That same year, he closed 31 Alabama DMVs, all of which served rural, heavily African-American communities. Although the NAACP claimed this violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, Alabama could enact this policy without federal oversight due to the Supreme Court’s decision in Shelby v. Holder. Merrill stated at the time that this would not effect people’s ability to obtain voter IDs because a mobile unit visiting the counties would help those who needed them. While a solid idea, the mobile units were poorly planned, stopping in only one location in each respective county county, for just two hours at a time. The amount of IDs they actually gave to voters that year? Twenty-nine.
This year, Alabama passed HB 282, a law reinstating the voting rights of low-level felons. However, Merrill did almost nothing to promote this law, saying, “I’m not going to spend state resources dedicating to notifying a small percentage of individuals who…may have believed for whatever reason they were disenfranchised.” After the Campaign Legal Center filed a lawsuit over his refusal to inform felons of their rights, Merrill took minimal action by putting posters in state prisons that informed inmates of which felonies could disenfranchise them. Nowhere did they contain any information on how to get their rights back, or communicate which felonies no longer result in disenfranchisement. Activists have worked like mad to register ex-felons over the past few weeks, so we have yet to see how this law will affect tonight’s results.
As for Russia, Moore invited their influence when The Guardian interviewed him in August. In a clip that has gone viral, where the interviewer confronts him with Ronald Reagan’s belief that Russia was “the evil empire,” Moore replies, “You could say that very well about America, couldn’t you?” condemning same-sex marriage. When told that’s the same argument Putin would make, he goes, “Then maybe Putin is right! Maybe he’s more akin to me than I know!” This whataboutism is an exact mirror of Trump’s interview with Bill O’Reilly last February where he said more or less the same thing in response to O’Reilly’s inquiries about Putin’s despotism: “You think our country’s so innocent?”
Last October, Moore got 20,000 Twitter followers from Russian bot accounts, most of which were suspended following this sudden spike in activity. Since then, the Russians have doubled down in their efforts to sow discord in this race. According to Hamilton 68, which tracks Russian twitter activity, 70% of Moore-related tweets last November attacked the credibility of his accusers, while 38% of them attacked the media. Just today, they report that the hashtag #Voteforroymoore and links to the domain votejudgemoore.com have increased by 1000 percent in the past 48 hours. And in fact, votejudgemoore.com isn’t even a real website, it’s just a link to John Merrill’s office to check your voter registration. Make sure you check this website throughout the day, as it will be updated with reports of new activity.
In an interview with Mother Jones, former CIA official John Cipher said, “the Russians…assess that the hyper-partisan and heated campaign is pitting Americans against each other and…they likely assess that a Moore victory will…further weaken the strained US political system. Supporting Mr. Moore is another means to help Mr. Trump while stoking chaos in the US at the same time.” This describes their deployment of active measures to a T, whether it’s through promoting the Seth Rich conspiracy or challenging the legitimacy of our elections, and it’s happening again in Alabama.
It’s too early to say what’s going to happen tonight, but I am not taking anything for granted and neither should you. A Jones victory will come from a combination of many different elements working together, whereas we already know what will pull Moore across the finish line should he be successful. Hopefully, activists on the ground keep all this in mind as they fight for Alabama and the United States at large. Until then, I leave you with this: “Hope for the Best, Expect the Worst” Mel Brooks’s song from his 1970 movie, The Twelve Chairs, which, along with “Happy Days Are Here Again,” should be the anthem for the Democratic Party in the age of Trump and Moore.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.