New Orleans Nothing is ever as simple as it seems. We’ve all heard that line since childhood. I only repeat it to underline my argument about the claims of New Orleans recall campaigners to demand voters be moved to the inactive list to assuage their fears that their petition efforts have fallen short that are fueling the voter suppression campaign of conservative, Republican legislators, office holders, and donors. For those who were concerned that I was just going down a dark hole of my own, seeing conspiracies to reduce the voter rolls in every crook and cranny on the way, I’ll offer proof from the horse’s mouth, so to speak.
A news report on one of the local channels gave extensive coverage to the court hearing where the recallers are trying to force up to 30,000 voters onto the inactive list, so that they can lower the threshold for their own petition. The suit has been filed against the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters. The judge has allowed the case to continue, though it’s a mystery to me why she did so, but that’s not the point.
The long serving Registrar of Voters’ position is straightforward and simple. She says she and her staff have done their jobs, as the law directs. Voters determined to be inactive because of death or changing addresses are so recorded, and unless remedied properly are eventually purged from the list as required.
The Secretary of State for the last five years, facing an election this year, is Kyle Ardoin, a Republican. His argument, not totally correct, is that he receives the list from each parish registrar and the accumulated totals are the state’s voter list. That’s partially true, because he does receive the list as submitted by the local parishes, but his office has a good many additional responsibilities to assure and maintain the accuracy of the lists. Once again, that’s a matter for another day, because what he has to say makes his intention in this matter more transparent. Getting past his dissembling, here’s the heart of his statement to the press:
“First and foremost, I reiterate that the responsibility of updating and maintaining an accurate voter registration list falls to the Registrar of Voters in each parish. While my role is limited, my office has complied with each and every process provided and allowed for in law related to voter list maintenance.
“However, I have long argued that the law does not go far enough. It is vital that we have more tools to ensure an accurate voter registration list; namely, a supplemental canvass to address individuals who are deceased, ineligible to vote in Louisiana, or have moved out-of-state. Despite the fact that many of these voters will not be removed through our current, legally prescribed canvass or monthly list maintenance procedures, Governor Edwards has continued to deny my office and our parish Registrars of Voters this necessary tool by vetoing legislation that would provide for such in 2021 and 2022.
“As the law currently stands, my office has followed what we are legally allowed and required to do. I am confident in my office’s ability to conduct our part of the list maintenance process, but I continue to support stronger procedures, such as a supplemental voter canvass, and will support legislation to authorize one when it is presented to the legislature in the upcoming session.”
This is well-traveled ground. Governor Edwards is a Democrat in the last year of his final term, who sees his and his party’s interest in expanding the voter pool. Secretary Ardoin is a Republican who sees their prospects as improved if the list is narrowed, particularly in the major Louisiana cities, where the majorities are Black and the results deliver huge majorities to the Democrats in local, statewide, and national elections.
The “tools” the Secretary wants to include what have been enacted in so many other red states, like extensive voter ID systems, but it’s more than that. Ardoin wants to use this recall effort and their disparagement of the Orleans Parish voter lists as a reason to allow what he is calling “supplemental canvassing”, which a euphemism for voter caging. Voter caging is usually a partisan effort targeting a specific group of voters to produce a list of possibly ineligible voters based on finding a piece of first class mail undeliverable. There’s a long history of such voter suppression tactics, including notably in Louisiana:
In Louisiana in 1986, the RNC tried to have 31,000 voters, mostly black, removed from the rolls when a party mailer was returned. Again, the action was challenged and dismissed. The consent decrees that resulted prohibited the party from engaging in anti-fraud initiatives that target minorities or from conducting mail campaigns to “compile voter challenge lists.”
Caging was made expressly illegal by the National Voter Registration Act (NVRA) of 1993. So-called “supplemental canvassing” is caging on steroids where officials of the government are doing home visits, phone calls, or mailing to voters seeking verification. The Supreme Court in 2018 in a controversial Ohio case established the inadequate post-card method for determining one of the tests of inactivity. As the Secretary of State’s release makes clear, he doesn’t have much choice but to follow the law.
On the other hand, the news report claims he and the recallers are trying to make a deal on the number. It may be in the Secretary’s interest to give the recallers a smaller number, but I can’t really imagine why the Orleans Registrar or the judge in this case would believe that the Secretary or anyone else has the legal authority to simply make up a number from thin air, based on the whines of the recallers about their failure to get sufficient signatures. Tragically, precedents of all kinds may be set and, whether deliberate or inadvertent, put jet fuel into the voter suppression drive.