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Whitmire: After lawmaker’s arrest, Alabama House Speaker is full of … concern

Dec 02, 2023

On Tuesday, the state charged Rep. David Cole, R-Huntsville, with voter fraud. Alabama lawmakers have known the facts of the case for months but refused to take action, despite the Alabama Supreme Court saying it was their responsibility to do so. (Alabama State Legislature)

Sign up for Alabamafication: Kyle Whitmire’s newsletter, “Alabamafication” examines the outsized influence of this very strange state, taking aim at corruption, cruelty, incompetence and hypocrisy while also seeking out those righteous folks making their state and country better places for all.

On Tuesday afternoon, Alabama House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter issued a press release sharing his … concern.

For now, we’ll just call it concern. And we’ll be coming back to that.

Earlier that day, state Rep. David Cole, R-Madison, had been arrested for voting in a place where he didn’t live.

“In recent years, the Alabama House has prioritized legislation that promotes election integrity, and we believe that any allegation of fraud must be addressed regardless of the party, public official, or candidate involved,” Ledbetter said.

The thing is, it wasn’t a big surprise when Cole was arrested. Alabama Political Reporter’s Josh Moon, citing unnamed sources, had reported last week that it was coming.

But just about everybody in Statehouse politics had known about Cole’s situation long before that. Only before handcuffs got involved, there wasn’t so much concern.

Let’s start at the beginning.

Cole had intended to run for District 10, to replace Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, who was retiring from state politics. However, the latest redistricting redrew the maps and just shifted the lines enough to put Cole’s house in west Madison inside District 4, where incumbent Rep. Parker Moore, R-Decatur, intended to run for re-election.

Rather than face a tough primary against Moore in District 4, Cole decided to run in District 10, anyway.

Only Cole had a primary opponent, Anson Knowles, who did live in District 10. Knowles alerted the party that Cole didn’t seem to live in the district where he was running.

At the time, Cole produced a supposed lease. That document showed Cole had leased space from a friend about two miles away in District 10.

There should have been red flags.

First, Cole’s friend hadn’t moved out of his house.

Second, Cole hadn’t moved out of his house, either, and his place was now in District 4.

In sworn testimony later, Cole would say he never moved into the friend’s house, didn’t spend the night in the house and couldn’t say for sure how many bedrooms were in the house.

Despite all this, Cole not only ran for office in District 10, where he didn’t live, he also registered to vote there.

So the Republican Party Executive Committee kicked him off the ballot.

Not Cole. No, not him.

They kicked Knowles off the ballot. The party said he had been an active Libertarian and not Republican enough to be in their party.

With Knowles off the ballot, Cole ran unopposed for the nomination, and in the general election, he won a close race against Democrat Marilyn Lands and Libertarian Elijah Boyd.

Boyd contested the election. He hired election lawyer Barry Ragsdale and sued.

Attorney General Steve Marshall will take credit for this, but it was the libertarian and his lawyer who dragged this case kicking and screaming into the light, fighting all the way to the Alabama Supreme Court — twice.

Cole’s lawyer, Al Agricola, argued that Alabama law says it’s up to the Legislature — not the courts — to determine whether someone is eligible to serve in the State House. And the state’s high court agreed — to a point. The court ruled that the Alabama House would decide if Cole could keep his seat, but it allowed the state court to manage depositions and the collection of evidence.

Ragsdale would get to put Cole under oath. He’d get to ask him questions. And Cole would have to tell the truth.

Which is how we know important facts — like Cole never moved into the new house.

When state investigators finally took up the case, they didn’t really have to do a lot of work here.

But at the very least, the AG’s office did more than the Alabama Legislature.

Remember, the Supreme Court said that it was up to the Alabama House to handle this and the Alabama House responded by doing a lot of … nothing.

Maybe nothing is not the right word?

State Rep. Chris Pringle, R-Mobile, did something. He tried to rig things to make Cole’s election legal. He introduced a sort of omnibus bill which did an assortment of things and embedded in it was language that would have struck the Legislature’s power of election review from the law.

But people saw what they were doing. Moon asked Pringle what the heck he was up to, and this was Pringle’s response as reported in the Alabama Political Reporter.

“If they were certified by the party and certified by the secretary or state, that should be the end of it,” Pringle told him. “The voters can fix it at the next election.”

Pringle didn’t get away with it and that part of the bill was pulled.

But the Legislature still had a lot of nothing up its sleeve.

Ragsdale completed his depositions and the court submitted its material to the Speaker’s office. Under Alabama law, the House is then supposed to decide what to do.

By that point, the Legislature had finished the 2023 regular session, but Kay Ivey had called a special session. It could have and should have been a first order of business for the Alabama House to determine whether they had a fake in their midst.

But they did nothing.

When I spoke with Ragsdale this week, he told me he thought that would be the end of it. He had taken things as far as he could and the Alabama Legislature had made clear it didn’t care.

Only the Attorney General’s office didn’t let it go. Perhaps because it couldn’t have.

Alabama Republicans have shown that they don’t care so much about enforcing laws they helped pass.

When Mike Hubbard broke ethics laws he helped pass, he was reelected House Speaker while under indictment.

When Alabama Republican Party Chairman John Wahl voted with an ID he made himself, he got a poll worker fired for questioning whether it was legal.

And here we had yet another state lawmaker flouting the law, voting in a district where he didn’t live — a felony under Alabama law.

The thing is, when you refuse to enforce the law against people who you like, pretty quickly it becomes impossible to enforce the law against people you don’t like. The law becomes meaningless.

So Marshall’s office picked up the case.

Give them a soft clap. They did their jobs.

But Ledbetter? The Alabama Legislature?

“As this is an ongoing investigation, we are still waiting to learn more details as they become available,” Ledbetter said in the press release.

Only, he’s had the material, including sworn testimony for almost two months.

“Now, it is up to the court of law to determine the validity of the allegations Cole is facing,” Ledbetter said.

No, it was up to the Legislature. The Alabama Supreme Court already said so.

“I anticipate Alabama’s election laws will withstand their true intent,” he said.

Yes, despite lawmakers’ efforts to change those laws.

“The Alabama House has prioritized legislation that promotes election integrity,” Ledbetter said.

That just isn’t true.

Ledbetter’s statement — nearly every line of it — is full of …

Let’s just call it concern.

Kyle Whitmire is the state political columnist for and the 2023 recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for commentary. Sign up for his weekly newsletter and get "Alabamafication" in your inbox every Wednesday.

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