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What did Alabama’s top election official learn from monitoring Russian election?

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama’s top election official, Secretary of State John Merrill, just returned from an election monitoring mission in Russia, where he says the process he observed was “free and fair,” though the overall report on the election came back less glowing.

Merrill took us along for the ride via Twitter as he observed the recent Duma, or parliamentary, election in Russia.

“The only person that most of our people are familiar with is Vladmir Putin,” Merrill says, “And he was not on the ballot. But his party was on the ballot.”

Merrill even met a teacher who had been recognized by Putin five times. She directed a local polling site.

Merrill monitored for the Operation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, also known as OSCE.

On election day, he observed local culture, like kids with an organized dance routine to Bruno Mars. He says they believe it increases voter turnout. But of course, he also observed election activities. For example, one tweet shows that he witnessed several individuals conducting exit polling and reporting it back to a central location.

Merrill says he was looking for, “Ballot box stuffing, people attempting to vote for someone else, people trying to discourage others from voting through intimidation.”

He monitored in the city of Volgograd. His colleague, John Bennett, was assigned to Siberia. Merrill saw alleged communist sympathizers and a monument to oppressed peoples.

But on election day, "We found, where we observed and where John observed, which was in Siberia, what I would consider free and fair elections."

The OSCE report he contributed to is less optimistic.

The overall report noted "serious irregularities during voting" and said "the counting process was markedly worse."

But Alabama's top election official says he didn't come across that in the area he monitored, what was formerly Stalingrad, "We did hear some things that were unusual, but we didn't hear any things that were highly irregular."

In the process of monitoring, he met with election officials from all over the world. He says topics like accusations of election hacking did come up. When they talked about safeguards against hacking, Merrill tells us, "I did not hear anything that was introduced from any other country in the world that was new to us or was a different idea than something we were already doing."

But Merrill did pick up lessons from the monitoring process.

"They gave us these sheets," he says, holding up pieces of paper with a small red box at the bottom, "But we didn't have to fax them in. What we did, we had a pen. An electronic pen. We were able to touch this box . . . it would automatically send the information that was recorded to the central reporting location and they could document it live throughout the day."

He says Alabama doesn't have any structure for the way election monitors submit notes, "What you have now, when you have people that go and observe elections, they might write a note on a sticky note or they might write a note in a notebook, but they're not doing anything that would be systematic or in sequential order about what they observed."

Merrill is back home now, preparing for the general election. He doesn't expect to get changes in place that quick, but he says he does eventually hope to implement lessons learned from his trip to Russia.