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Office of the Secretary of State

Glen Browder, Jacksonville State University
John Merrill
Dating from before statehood to 1818, the office of the Alabama Secretary of State is relatively unknown, yet has important responsibilities. The most significant of these is oversight of the voting process in the state. Its long history and evolution of responsibilities reveals much about Alabama's political culture and development. The Alabama Secretary of State is the custodian of the Alabama Great Seal, which is used for authenticating various state documents. Unlike the U.S. Secretary of State, who heads the Department of State and is concerned mainly with international affairs, the Alabama Secretary of State is charged with many of the internal affairs of the state government. The Alabama Secretary of State is elected by popular vote to a four-year term. The individual elected to the office must be at least 25 years of age, a U.S. citizen for seven years, and a state resident for five years.
Formal responsibilities of the office are numerous, and working duties of the approximately 40-person staff generally fall into four categories. The office of the Secretary of State maintains records and databases of original laws, gubernatorial actions, incorporations and trademarks, and other papers, books, and maps. It also authenticates official acts of the governor and copies of public records. In addition, the office distributes legislative acts and resolutions and other public documents. The individual elected as Secretary of State serves as "Chief State Elections Official" for federal, state, special, and constitutional elections.
History
The Secretary of State traces its origins back before Alabama became a state, when a Territorial Secretary was appointed a year before adoption of the Constitution and statehood in 1819. The office originally was filled by legislative appointment; however, it has been publicly elected since 1868. The office has operated despite several relocations of the state capital, the accidental burning of the capitol building, and the Civil War.
Although records are sometimes unclear, it appears that 47 individuals have occupied the office; and the Secretary of State has reflected Alabama's culture and politics in many ways. All have been white, most have been Democrats, and only six have been female. Particularly in the early years, they were professional men, such as attorneys, journalists, and military veterans. Since World War II, the position has been filled by women and men whose careers have generally revolved around public affairs. Although often viewed as a "stepping-stone" for ambitious politicians, very few of those elected to this office have gone on to higher office.
As a final historical note, it is clear that the Secretary of State has assumed somewhat greater significance in the changing partisan and racial environment of contemporary Alabama. While originally conceived as an administrative office with primarily managerial responsibilities over routine governmental and business documents, the Office of the Secretary of State became very involved in electoral matters during the latter part of the twentieth century. The civil rights movement, the rise of two-party competition, and progressive public demand required that the Secretary of State assume a more prominent role in guaranteeing open, fair, and efficient elections; and both state and federal laws now designate the Secretary of State as the chief elections official of Alabama.
Notable Secretaries
Henry Hitchcock
The first officeholder was Henry Hitchcock, who served from 1818-1819 as Territorial Secretary and was followed by Thomas A. Rodgers (1819-1821), the first Secretary of State of the State of Alabama, who was selected by the state legislature. Albert Stanhope Elmore (1865-1866) was apparently the first native-born Alabamian to serve as Secretary of State. Charles A. Miller (1968-1870) was the first of three Republican secretaries during Reconstruction. Rufus King Boyd (1874-1878) was reportedly a soldier-of-fortune in Central America, a Confederate cavalryman, a member of the infamous Quantrill's Raiders, and an associate of outlaw Frank James before joining Alabama Democrats in "redeeming" Alabama from Republican Reconstruction. William W. Screws (1878-1882) was a prominent conservative force for several decades following the Civil War through his journalistic career with the Montgomery Advertiser.
In the twentieth century, J. Thomas "Cotton Tom" Heflin (1903-1904) was a contentious member of a noted political family who participated in drafting Alabama's 1901 Constitution and was the only Secretary of State to later serve in the U.S. Senate. Sibyl Pool (1944-1951) was the first woman to hold the office and began a four-decade era of female occupation of this position.
Agnes Baggett
Agnes Baggett, one of the most elected officials in Alabama history, served in this position on three separate occasions (1951-1955, 1963-1967, 1975-1979) as well as the positions of State Auditor (1955-1959) and State Treasurer (1959-1963, 1967-75). Don Siegelman (1979-1987) re-oriented the office into an aggressive advocate for campaign reform. He proved to be one of the state's most successful politicians and the only secretary elected governor (1999-2003). In addition, Siegelman served as Attorney General (1987-1991) and Lieutenant Governor (1995-1999). Glen Browder (1987-1989) firmly established the Secretary of State as "chief elections officer" by championing and implementing the Alabama Fair Campaign Practices Act. Browder was the only secretary besides Tom Heflin to serve in the U.S. Congress (1989-1996).
Jim Bennett Swearing In
At the end of the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, James Bennett (1993-2003) was elected as both a Democrat (1994) and a Republican (1998). He was also the first elected Republican Secretary of State since Reconstruction and later served as Commissioner of Labor. Beth Chapman (2007-2013), a Republican, previously served as State Auditor (2003-2007). In July 2013, Chapman resigned the position to take a job with the Alabama Farmer's Federation, and Gov. Robert Bentley appointed Bennett to again serve as Secretary of State. In 2014, John Merrill, a former state representative from Heflin, Cleburne County, was elected to the post.
Additional Resources
Alabama Law Institute. Alabama Government Manual. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: University of Alabama, 2006.
Publications of the Alabama Historical Society: Miscellaneous Collections. Montgomery, Ala.: Brown Printers, 1901.
Published:  May 19, 2008   |   Last updated:  October 21, 2016