Merrill was born in Wedowee, Alabama, and raised in Heflin, Alabama. His father served as the Cleburn County Circuit Clerk and a Probate Judge. He graduated from Cleburne County High School and the University of Alabama. Merrill interned for the United States Congress from May to July 1983, where he met U.S. Representative William Flynt Nichols, who became his mentor. Merrill interned for U.S. Senator Howell Heflin in 1984. He served as the President of the University of Alabama's Student Government Association from 1986 to 1987.
Merrill served as the spokesperson for the Tuscaloosa County School District, and as a Business Development Officer for the First Federal Bank in Tuscaloosa. He was elected to represent the 62nd district in the Alabama House of Representatives in the 2010 elections. He served in the Alabama House for a single term from 2010 through 2014.
Merrill has admitted to an inappropriate sexual relationship with a woman in 2010 and claims to have been the subject of a political smear because of his actions.
Merrill announced in January 2013 that he would run for Secretary of State of Alabama in the 2014 elections. In the Republican Party primary election in June 2014, Merrill finished in first, advancing to a runoff election in July, which he won. In the general election on November 3, 2014, he defeated Lula Albert-Kaigler, the Democratic Party nominee with more than 60% of the vote. He succeeded James R. Bennett who had been appointed to the office to fill out the remainder of the term of the previous incumbent Beth Chapman.
(See also: Elections in Alabama)
A 2016 study of the content and quality of Alabama's county voting and election websites found statewide problems with information they provide voters. Their evaluation of the relationship between voting systems and "demographic, socioeconomic, partisan, and participatory composition" of counties showed "limited voting and election information and are not in full compliance with accessibility, usability, and mobile readiness standards. Further, the extent to which voting and elections information is provided, is related to county composition."
Merrill defended Alabama's 2011 law requiring Voter ID. But In 2016 an U.S. Court of Appeals decision the law was determined to be unconstitutional in response to a lawsuit by The League of Women Voters, and, blocked the law, which Alabama passed without federal approval. The law had required voters to furnish proof of citizenship when registering at the polls in an effort to prevent voter fraud, though numerous research find the incidence of voter fraud is nearly non-existent. The decision effectively strikes down a rule that required voters in Alabama to provide proof they are United States citizens. Elsewhere, voters only need swear that they are citizens in order to cast a ballot.
Merrill applauded the 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision by the U.S. Supreme Court limiting federal poll monitors at state polling locations. However civil rights groups have protested them. The Greater Birmingham Ministries and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit in December 2015 saying the Voter ID law is an "unfair barrier for voters who lack a valid photo ID and the resources or transportation necessary to get one." The law, they said, effectively obstructs many black and Hispanic citizens from voting. The Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law said the " rolls back legislation that courageous Americans fought so hard for, even giving their lives in many cases, to ensure that all citizens can participate in our democracy. Today's decision threatens the promise of equal access to the ballot – especially when the majority of voters of color who voted last year, 65.8 percent, live in states covered by the Section 4 formula." According to the Advancement Project: "Threatens the promise of equal access to the ballot – especially when the majority of voters of color who voted last year, (2012) 65.8 percent, live in states (including Alabama) covered by (the law's provisions)." And, that "We have essentially lost an effective tool today to stave off voter suppression this year.”
Merrill was one of a coalition of U.S. leaders who travelled with Operation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, to Russia to monitor parliamentary polls there in September 2016. While Merrill observed the Russian process to be "free and fair," the report that he and others contributed to found "serious irregularities during voting" and worse problems in ballot counting.
Merrill is a descendant of Hugh Davis Merrill, the former Lieutenant Governor of Alabama and Speaker of the Alabama House, Hugh Davis Merrill, Jr., who also served in the Alabama House, and Pelham Jones Merrill, who served in the Alabama House and fought in World War II.
Secretary Merrill is the son of Horace and Mary Merrill of Heflin, AL. He had 2 children, Brooks and Allie Grace. Merrill is also the brother of Audrey Merrill Gillis of Montgomery, AL. She and her husband have daughters.