Politics

Runoff Day Puts A Spotlight On Louisiana’s Abysmal Voting Rights Record

CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

NEW ORLEANS, LOUISIANA — As voters across Louisiana head to the polls today to cast their runoff ballots for senator and a handful of local races, voting rights organizers across the state and country are drawing attention to policies and practices that make it more difficult for Louisianians to vote.

Volunteers from the Election Protection Network, who will be on the ground Saturday to monitor voting issues during the runoff, report concerns stemming from the state’s long history of voter suppression and problems that have surfaced in recent years.

Recently, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other national voting rights groups took Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration to court over a statewide practice that prevented many low-income, minority Louisianians from registering to vote. Just last month, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled partially in their favor, finding that Louisiana violated the National Voter Registration Act by failing to provide voter registration services at the state’s public service agencies — such as the departments where residents can sign up for Medicaid and food stamps. Attorney Natasha Korgaonkar with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, who worked on the case, told ThinkProgress that the lawsuit targeted two state agencies and the Secretary of State who were all knowingly preventing public service recipients from easily registering to vote.

In January 2013, the NAACP LDF won all of its claims in federal court. Secretary of State Tom Schedler was the only defendant to appeal, but the Fifth Circuit ruled that he must mandate that state agencies provide registration services during benefits transactions.

“Voter registration through public assistance agencies showed a marked increase after the filing of our lawsuit,” Korgaonkar said. “What that demonstrates is that when states comply with the NVRA, voter registration goes up and that bring more voters into the polls and that enables more voters to cast their ballots on Election Day and to have those ballots count.”

While the public service voter registration problem was remedied before the current election cycle, Louisiana voters faced other measures which made it more difficult to vote during November’s Senate primary. The state has a unique law which puts a three minute limit on the amount of time voters can spend in the booth, no matter how many complex items are on the ballot. Jennifer Coco, a staff attorney in the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Louisiana office who also served as the volunteer statewide coordinator for the national Election Protection program in 2012, told ThinkProgress the time limit can be strictly enforced, and has presented an issue for voters in recent elections.

“In both 2012 and 2014, voters were being asked to leave when they couldn’t finish voting within three minutes; and in both elections, the ballots contained many issues, including lengthy and complex proposed state constitutional amendments,” she said. “This left a voter with seconds to review each item and cast their vote in order to finish in three minutes.”

Only two other states have shorter time limits—New Jersey and Indiana, which only give voters two minutes in the voting booth. Other state time limits tend to be much longer, such as California’s 10 minute cutoff.

The time limit isn’t likely to be a problem on Saturday because there are fewer items on the ballot, but local groups will be paying close attention to other issues that arise throughout the day.

Louisiana currently has a less-restrictive voter ID law in place than some of the states which have implemented stricter voter suppression measures. Voters in the state are asked to present ID, although it doesn’t have to be a picture ID. If they do not have one available, they can sign an affidavit and provide a piece of personal identifying information, such as a paycheck or utility bill.

Kirstin Alvanitakis, the communications director for the Louisiana Democratic Party, said the major issues seen during the November primary—which could also be problems during the runoff—were improper enforcement of the voter ID law and previously registered voters who were purged from the rolls.

As the runoff race drew to a close last week, supporters of Cassidy attempted to accuse state Democrats of voter fraud and drew attention to a video of the Democratic mayor of the city of Opelousas telling a crowd: “If you early voted, go vote again tomorrow. One more time’s not going to hurt.’” Conservative groups are accusing the mayor of encouraging voter fraud, while Democrats have insisted the comment was a joke.

Rich Masters, a former communications director for Sen. Mary Landrieu, dismissed the accusations from Republicans. “They still dislike the fact that certain groups vote, and they can’t get over that fact,” he said. “They haven’t been able to get that fact for 60 years. Unfortunately for them, all Americans can vote, if you’re registered and you show up. It’s the same old playbook. Every time they scream, ‘Voter fraud, voter fraud, voter fraud!’ But the truth is, it isn’t there. They think because people are voting, it’s fraud.”

The Louisiana GOP also set up a program to prevent voter fraud even though Schedler, the Republican secretary of state, has said that voter fraud is a nonissue in the state.

Louisiana’s current policies have come under heightened scrutiny from voting rights activists due to the state’s long and controversial history of suppressing minority votes. Literacy tests, poll taxes and acts of violence and terror were routine until the mid-1960s. In more recent decades, advocates have cited ongoing attempts to confuse, intimidate, and make it more difficult both to register and cast a ballot. Until the Supreme Court ruled last year to strike down key sections of the Voting Rights Act—a decision supported by Secretary of State Schedler—Louisiana was one of the states that had to clear all changes to its voting laws with the federal Justice Department.

Laws in the state that bar anyone in jail or prison, on parole or on probation from voting also have a disparate racial impact. Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate in the United States, locking up tens of thousands of its citizens. Heaviest hit are diverse urban centers including New Orleans, where one in seven African American men is either in prison, on parole or on probation.