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Merrill seeks to postpone runoff election; Sessions, Tuberville continue campaigning

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill is seeking an emergency opinion from the state attorney general on whether the state’s March 31 runoff election can be postposed.

Currently, neither the Code of Alabama nor the Constitution of the State of Alabama allow for the suspension, delay, or postponement of an election once the date has been set, Merrill said in a letter Sunday night. 

“The health and well-being of the people of this state are of paramount importance,” Merrill’s letter said. “In order to effectively practice social distancing, as recommended by the President of the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Alabama Department of Public Health, etc., the March 31 runoff election must be postponed.”

Merrill’s announcement Sunday night reflects a developing response in Alabama to the new coronavirus. Earlier Sunday, Merrill told Alabama Daily News “nothing has changed” in his earlier statements that the March 31 election would go on as planned. 

Sunday evening, the Alabama Department of Public Health had reported 22 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the state.

The biggest race on that runoff ballot is the GOP U.S. Senate contest between former U.S. attorney general and senator Jeff Sessions and former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville. 

Both men’s campaigns on Sunday evening said they were continuing on the campaign trail, but acknowledged an unprecedented scenario that’s subject to change.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday recommended that gatherings of 50 or more people be postponed for eight weeks.

“We are closely monitoring the situation as it develops and as information becomes available from State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris, Governor Ivey’s Office, and other state and national resources,” Sessions spokesman John Rogers said Sunday evening.

Rogers said one event venue was recently changed to move it from a senior citizen’s home.

Tuberville campaign manager Paul Shashy late Sunday afternoon said Tuberville is currently attending public events as scheduled.

“He urges all citizens to use common sense, wash their hands frequently and seek medical advice if they experience symptoms during this COVID-19 outbreak,” Shashy said. “Coach Tuberville commends President Trump and our state leaders for their rapid response to the virus.”

About a possible election date change, Rogers said: “We support whatever decision allows the most Alabamians to safely participate in the election.”  

In the March 3 primary, Tuberville took 33% of the vote to Sessions’ 31%. Voter turnout that day was about 33 percent.

Even without fears of a deadly virus, runoffs always have a lower turnout, Jess Brown, a retired Athens State University political science professor, told Alabama Daily News Sunday.

As people stay home and practice social distancing, Sessions’ and Tuberville’s online messaging will become even more important. Especially as they try to pick up former candidate Bradley Byrne’s south Alabama supporters.

Polling since March 3 has shown Tuberville leading or he and Sessions tied.

“If you want a surprise outcome, you get it when it’s a low turnout,” Brown said.

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