Guest Essayist: The Honorable John Merrill

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         The Alabama Secretary of State’s Office

Alabama has a long history that dates back to the 1800s. As the 22nd state to join the Union on December 14, 1819, Alabama had established a Secretary of State’s Office the year before officially becoming a state. Henry Hitchcock served as Secretary of State for the Alabama Territory from 1818 to 1819 and then became the state’s first Attorney General from 1819 to 1823. The Secretary of State served a two-year term from the time Alabama became a state in 1819 until the Constitution of 1901 set the term at four years. Up until 1868, the Secretary of State was elected by the legislature, but since that time has been selected by popular vote. Over the course of nearly 200 years, Alabama has had 53 Secretaries of State, with John H. Merrill serving as the 53rd. Since taking office in 2015 and gaining re-election in 2018, Secretary Merrill and his staff have worked tirelessly to ensure that the office is doing all that it can to assist the people of Alabama.

State law gives the Alabama Secretary of State more than 1,000 different duties, and virtually all of them involve processing and filing documents that are public records. Many of the documents must have the Great Seal of Alabama affixed in order to make them official. The Secretary of State is the sole custodian of the Great Seal of Alabama, and use of the Great Seal is controlled by state law. Only a few staff members within the Secretary of State’s Office have permission to affix the seal to documents. Custody of the Great Seal was officially transferred from the Governor to the Secretary of State in 1852. Approximately 500,000 Executive, Legislative, Elections, and Business documents are stored in the Secretary of State’s Office, but the office also offers a number of other services through its various divisions. In order to keep up with the public demand for access to these records, the office uses extensive computer and information technology. The Alabama Secretary of State’s Office was one of the first in the nation to successfully store and retrieve the records on an optical disk, but today, many of the corporate and Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) records are available to businesses via the Internet.

Many of the executive records have both the signatures of the Secretary of State and the Governor because the Secretary of State serves as the Governor’s personal notary public. When the Secretary of State is witnessing the Governor’s signature, the Great Seal of Alabama is used as the “notary” seal. The executive records are composed of writs of arrest, contracts, deeds, and leases, as well as listings of abandoned vehicles found in the state, information on municipal incorporations, and the names of all the notaries publicly registered in Alabama.

In 2015, to help the state’s fiscal issues, Secretary Merrill asked the Legislature to remove the Secretary of State’s Office primary General Fund Appropriation for Administrative Services from the state budget. The office currently operates with revenues generated by the services provided by the office. The Secretary of State is the custodian of the original legislative bills that become law and is responsible for assigning an act number to each. The office ensures that the acts and minutes from the Legislative Sessions are distributed through bound volumes called the Acts of Alabama, the House Journal, and the Senate Journal. The Secretary of State also distributes the state law books called the Code of Alabama, 1975 to government agencies.

The Secretary of State is Alabama’s “Chief Election Official,” and the office is given many different election duties under state law. Election records include vote totals, certified ballots, and records showing how much money candidates and political committees raised and spent during an election. Copies of certificates of election, commissions, and oaths of office are also on file for many elected officials. The Secretary of State’s Office has developed a new system that allows Alabamians to register to vote electronically by visiting sos.alabama.gov/alabama-votes or by downloading the Vote for Alabama app from the Apple App Store or Google Play Store. With the implementation of the electronic ballot project, Alabama became one of the first states to employ an entirely secure, electronic voting system for the state’s military and civilian voters who are outside the territorial limits of the United States. Furthermore, due to the promotion of voter registration and free photo voter ID through various initiatives, such as the mobile units that travel across Alabama’s 67 counties, the unveiling of the new mobile app, and using the likeness of well-known Alabamians on promotional posters and commercials, the state’s voter registration numbers are at a historic 3.4 million, as of June 2019.

Business records are divided into three categories: Lands & Trademarks, Business Entities, and Uniform Commercial Code (UCC). The Lands and Trademarks section has the original state land records dating back to the days when Alabama first achieved statehood. All of the trademarks registered in the state are also found here. Business Entity staff members reserve names of businesses, index domestic filings, and file foreign filings for businesses that register to do business in Alabama. The state has about 500,000 business entity filings, and staff members usually get about 150-650 requests each day for information in those files. Since the summer of 2016, all business corporations filings have been filed on the same day they are received by the Business Services Division and no later than the next business day for nearly three consecutive years. Secretary Merrill’s instruction to deposit funds in one day caused all new domestic entities filing for the first time to be issued within one day of their Business Entity Number, which is available on the website. This process is a tremendous help to a new business, where banks, lenders, and others can verify the existence of a new domestic entity. Upon being informed that the state law provision on the payment of an “expedite” fee related to certain business filings was being processed in three business days, the expedition of the filings to be accomplished in less than 24 hours was immediately ordered, as the state law requires. Secretary Merrill also instructs the Uniform Commercial Code (UCC) sub-division of the Business Services Division to accomplish its recordation and filing activities in the time period required by state law, which is to be fulfilled in two days. After a period of adjustment, the UCC sub-division is consistently accomplishing its public duties the same day but no later than the next business day, as well.

The Authentications Division is responsible for providing authentication services for Alabama public documents that will be used in foreign countries. These documents include birth certificates, marriage certificates, statements of marital status, articles of incorporation, corporate bylaws, certificates of merger, powers of attorney, diplomas, school transcripts, deeds, and ABI background checks. Depending on the country of usage, an Apostille or Certification is affixed to the document(s). The Secretary of State’s website now offers an online listing of all the countries that are and are not part of the Hague Convention, along with each country’s required type of authentication. The division is also responsible for authenticating paperwork for international adoptions, and the Secretary of State’s Office hosts an International Adoption Day Celebration program each year to honor and congratulate the families who’ve adopted children on the international level.

The Alabama Athlete Agents Commission was established by the Alabama Legislature in 1988 through the Alabama Athlete Agents Regulatory Act. In 1994, the administrative functions for the commission were transferred to the Secretary of State’s Office. Any individual who operates as an athlete agent in Alabama is required by the Revised Uniform Athlete Agents Act to be licensed by the commission.

For more information on these and other services provided by the Alabama Secretary of State’s Office, visit www.sos.alabama.gov or call 334-242-7200.

John Harold Merrill is the son of Mary Merrill and the late Judge Horace Merrill of Heflin, Ala., in Cleburne County. He was born on November 12, 1963, in Wedowee, Ala., in Randolph County. He grew up in Heflin and is an Eagle Scout from Heflin Troop 206. He is a graduate of Cleburne County High School and The University of Alabama, where he served as President of the Student Government Association in 1986-1987.

While attending The University, John served as a Congressional Intern for Congressman Bill Nichols in 1983 and Sen. Howell Heflin in 1984. After college, John worked as a governmental affairs intern at the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama in 1987-88; National Advertising Account Executive and Manager for Randall (now Randall-Reilly) Publishing Company from 1988-90; Assistant Director for the Tuscaloosa County Industrial Development Authority from 1990-93 where he assisted in the recruitment of Mercedes-Benz; Director of Business Development for the Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama in 1993-94; Director of Community Relations and Community Education for the Tuscaloosa County Board of Education from 1994-2010; and served as Business Development Officer for 1st Federal Bank in Tuscaloosa from 2011-2015.

On Nov. 2, 2010, John was elected to represent the people of District 62 in the State House of Representatives with 87 percent of the vote, which was the highest percentage garnered by a candidate in any contested House race that year. He served as the Secretary/Treasurer of the House Republican Caucus and was a member of the powerful Rules Committee, Economic Development and Tourism, and Constitution, Campaigns, and Elections Committees.

In 2011, he was presented the “Axe Award” by the Alabama Association of Volunteer Fire Departments and became the only freshman ever to be recognized as their Legislator of the Year. John was a member of the inaugural class of NCSL Early Learning Fellows in 2011, one of 30 Legislators selected nationwide and the only one from Alabama. In 2012, he was named the Alabama House Legislator of the Year by the Children’s Trust Fund, he was recognized by the Alabama Republican Party as a Rising Republican Star, and he was presented with the Tuscaloosa All-Star Award for Excellence in Caring for Veterans. In 2013, he was selected as the Soil and Water Conservation District Area III Outstanding Elected Official, Outstanding Legislator by the Alabama Association of Rescue Squads, and he was named as the Child Advocate of the Year at the Early Intervention and Preschool Conference. In 2014, John was awarded the Silver Beaver by the Black Warrior Council of the Boy Scouts of America for outstanding volunteer service in Scouting. John was identified by the Sunlight Foundation as the Most Effective Republican Member of the Alabama House of Representatives from 2011-14, and he was named Legislator of the Year by the Tuscaloosa County Young Republicans in 2014. In 2015, he was selected as one of 48 leaders from around the nation to attend and graduate from the Council of State Government’s prestigious Henry Toll Fellowship Leadership Program.

On Nov. 4, 2014, John was elected as Alabama’s Secretary of State with 65 percent of the vote, winning in 53 of Alabama’s 67 counties. He was inaugurated as Alabama’s 53rd Secretary of State on Jan. 19, 2015.

John is very active in his community and has served in many leadership capacities. He is a Deacon at Calvary Baptist Church, where he has served as a Sunday School teacher and a member of the Sanctuary Choir. He was on Emmaus Walk No. 68 and has assisted with several Emmaus Walks and Chrysalis Flights. He is a member of the National Association of Secretaries of State and the Republican Association of Secretaries of State. He is the Co-Chair of the NASS Voter Participation Committee and serves as the NASS Representative to the Steering Committee of the National Voter Registration Day. He is also a member of the United States Election Assistance Commission Standards Board. He is or has been a member of numerous community organizations, including the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame Selection Committee, Children First Board of Directors, Friends of the Alabama Archives Board of Directors, Alabama YMCA Youth in Government Board of Directors, State Republican Executive Committee, National Rifle Association, Leadership Tuscaloosa, Chamber of Commerce of West Alabama, United Way of West Alabama, YMCA, Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers / Big Sisters, Boy Scouts of America, March of Dimes, Hillcrest High School Athletic Boosters Club, West Alabama Literacy Council and the Alabama Constables Association.

He has also served as Southeastern Regional Vice President for the National School Public Relations Association and has served as President or Chairman of many other groups, including the Alabama Children’s Trust Fund, Alabama School Communicators Association, Alabama Community Education Association, American Red Cross, Leadership Tuscaloosa Alumni Association, United Cerebral Palsy of West Alabama, Youth for Christ, Druid Civitan Club and the Tuscaloosa City School’s Vocational Advisory Council. He is a past Chairman of the Tuscaloosa County Republican Executive Committee.

John has traveled internationally and represented our state and nation in Canada, China, Germany, Russia and Taiwan.

John has been married to the former Cindy Benford of Phil Campbell for 33 years. She is a career educator and the former principal at Westwood Elementary School in Coker. The couple has two children, Brooks, 28, who lives in New York and works with the Chick-fil-A corporation, and Allie Grace, 25, who is an International Flight Attendant with American Airlines.

Special thanks to the staff members of the Alabama Secretary of State’s office for their assistance in the research and drafting of this essay.

 

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