Sorting out the Alabama Senate election possibilities: what happens to the votes of a withdrawn candidate?

I blogged earlier about some of the possibilities in the Alabama Senate election. One question that arose was, what would happen to the votes of a candidate who withdrew but whose name could not be replaced on the ballot? (Let me explain at the outset I view the likelihood of Roy Moore voluntarily withdrawing, or the Alabama Republican Party invoking its power to remove him, as quite unlikely at this point, but the possibility remains.)

I explained that I thought that the votes for that candidate would not count and the second-place finisher would win. But a commenter pointed me to a recent statement from Secretary of State John Merrill:

What happens if Moore is withdrawn as the nominee but still receives the most votes?

Merrill said the election would be null and void. The second-place finisher would not win.

It would then fall to the governor to call another special election.

. . .

But there might be some question about that scenario. John Bennett, spokesman for Merrill, said one interpretation of the law is that if Moore is no longer a valid candidate but receives the most votes, Jones would be declared the winner.

Bennett said the official position of the secretary of state's office is that the election would be null and void, as Merrill said.

Let me start with the text of Alabama Code 17-6-21(c), emphasis added: "The notification deadline for persons who do not wish to accept nomination in a primary election is 76 days before the date of the election. A person who does not wish to accept nomination in a second primary election shall submit the notification set forth in subsection (a) before the printing of absentee ballots. The notification deadline for persons who do not wish to accept nomination in a general election is 76 days before the date of the election. In the event that a candidate submits a notification of withdrawal after the applicable deadline, the name of the candidate shall remain on the ballot and the appropriate canvassing board may not certify any votes for the candidate." (Similar language is in (b) when a party withdraws a nominee.)

The text of that statute, in my view, anticipates that the votes for the withdrawn candidate simply do not count. That would mean that the second-best finisher wins the election.

To explain some of the distinction, this is a centuries-old dispute about what to do with the votes in such a case: the "American rule," or the "English rule."

Many jurisdictions, including Alabama for a time, would count the votes for a deceased, ineligible, or otherwise withdrawn candidate. In the event that candidate won, the election would be null and void, the office declared vacant, and a new election held. Consider State v. Stacy (Ala. 1955): "In the case before us, where it affirmatively appears that the appellant received only forty-nine of the total number of votes, but the deceased candidate received the other 1,590 ballots cast for this office, we think the better rule is that the election for this office be held null and void because of the disqualification (by death) of the winning candidate." The Court there explained that voters might well not "waste" their votes by voting for a dead candidate; they may well know that the election would be found null and void, and they might prefer a subsequent special election. Another good reasons for this approach, too--consider that in Stacy, the runner-up received just 49 votes among over 2000 ballots cast! While we may accept plurality winners, a winner with such a tiny percentage of the votes may strike the public as something less than legitimate. Accord Banks v. Zippert (Ala. 1985); Ala. A.G. Op. 2001-041.

That was, for instance, the case of Mel Carnahan in Missouri in 2000, who died the week before the election and received the most votes. That led to the office being declared vacant, the governor appointing a Senator, and a special election was later held.

If that's historically true in many places in the United States, and in Alabama, what's the alternative? The "English rule" permits disregarding the votes cast for a deceased, ineligible, or otherwise withdrawn candidate. The second-best vote total actually wins, because those ineligible votes are thrown out.

It appears that Alabama has adopted the "English rule" in the context of late withdrawing candidates. That is, when a candidate withdraws within the 76-day window, votes for that candidate are simply not totaled. It is as if voters have cast blank votes (or "undervotes") for the office.

The Alabama legislature in 2014, with unanimous support, passed HB 62, which added this language to 21(c):

Note that the textual addition of the phrase at the end. It gives a new legal effect to late withdrawal--that is, the canvassing board "may not certify any votes for the candidate." That means, that candidate cannot receive the most votes. And that means, the "American rule" is not at play.

In the event Mr. Moore withdraws, then, any votes for him are not certified. The vote totals from the canvassing board would reflect vote totals for Doug Jones and for any write-in ballots cast. Whichever candidate among those names receives the most votes would win.

Note, too, this only extends to late-withdrawn candidates. In the event a candidate, say, died before Election Day, the "American rule" would still apply--the office would be declared vacant and a new special election would need to be called.

I have tried in vain to find any meaningful legislative history behind the addition of 21(c), but I think this is the best interpretation--and one that Mr. Merrill's spokesman admits is a possible interpretation.