By Anitra D. Brown
The New Orleans Tribune

The effort to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell has fallen significantly short of the nearly 45,000 signatures needed to trigger a recall election, according to a statement released by Gov. John Bel Edwards today (March 21), which reads:

Effort to oust Mayor LaToya Cantrell falls short, according to statement released by Gov. John Bel Edwards today (Tuesday, Mar. 21)

“Today, Gov. John Bel Edwards sent a letter to Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Dr. Sandra Wilson acknowledging that his office received her letter and delivery of the Certification and Petition to recall Mayor LaToya Cantrell and that the number of signatures collected from qualified electors was insufficient to trigger a recall election. The total number of electors in Orleans is 224,876 per the Final Consent Judgment issued by the Civil District Court of Orleans March 1, 2023 provided by the Office of the Secretary of State. The petition contained 67,022 handwritten signatures of which 27,243 were of qualified electors. The total number of names included in the petition who were not electors was 39,805.”

With the news, Mayor Cantrell seems ready to move on with the remainder of her second term.

“My administration has always remained focused on addressing the real pressing issues that face our City,” Mayor Cantrell said in a statement. “Now, with the divisiveness of the failed recall campaign officially behind us, we must heal and recommit ourselves to working collaboratively to continue the progress we’ve made towards reducing crime, increasing public safety, building a more sustainable and resilient city and creating economic and job opportunities that benefit all of our people. As a former member of the New Orleans City Council and a twice-elected mayor, I have always respected and believed deeply in the democratic process,” Mayor Cantrell said in a statement. “The right of the people to use their voice to express concerns are hallmarks of a strong, functioning democracy. New Orleans is a strong community that continues to make meaningful progress each day. I’d like to express my deepest gratitude to the residents of New Orleans for trusting in my leadership and believing that, for New Orleans, the best is truly yet to come.”

While it seems that the recall effort was short of the 44,975 signatures needed by more than 17,700 names – a margin many have speculated is too wide to draw any real or relevant challenge to the certification process – that does not mean that the fallout is over.

There could very well be a full-bodied woman with a strong voice just waiting to perform a little melodic refrain. And if she gets to singing, the fallout from a failed recall could yet result in deep, echoing consequences for the people of New Orleans.

Unfinished Business

While the recall effort was short of the 44,975 signatures needed by more than 17,700 names – a margin many have speculated is too wide to draw any real or relevant challenge to the certification process – that does not mean that the fallout is over. There are still questions that could, and maybe, should be answered despite the failed petition. Should Judge Medley have recused herself? Did Sec. Kyle Ardoin overstep his authority when he made the deal with the recall organizers? If that question remains unsettled, what stops him from doing it again? Are there really almost 33,000 dead folk and non-residents on the Orleans Parish voters rolls or was that claim just a Hail Mary pass made by recall organizers when it was clear they wouldn’t reach their goal?

While the recall campaign appears over, the effort to oust Cantrell, which began when former mayoral aid, Eileen Carter, and community activist, Belden Batiste, filed a petition with the Secretary of State on Aug. 26, 2022, it prompted a number of legal challenges along the way – some of which are not necessarily or automatically resolved by the recall’s failure.

Recall organizers were the first, filing a suit against the Secretary of State and the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters that challenged the accuracy of the Orleans Parish voter rolls with a claim that there are nearly 33,000 names on the voter rolls that belong to individuals who are either dead or otherwise unable to legally vote in Orleans Parish. Organizers made the claims based on information gathered by a firm they hired using some of the more than $1 million raised largely from one donor, local businessman and major Republican donor, Rick Farrell.

At the time, recall organizers labeled their allegation about bad voter data, which has yet to be substantiated, as a serious issue for Orleans Parish residents.

In part, that lawsuit read: “The  data presented in this pleasing should be alarming and embarrassing to the citizens of Orleans Parish and the state of Louisiana.”

Still, it was pushed aside when Sec. of State Kyle Ardoin reached a settlement with recall organizers to reduce the number of qualified electors in Orleans Parish by 25,000 and, by extension, reduce the number of signatures needed to prompt a recall by 5,000. For his part, Ardoin also agreed to look into the recall’s claims about the integrity of voter rolls as a part of that compromise.

Recall organizers could renew the claim and file a lawsuit again challenging the accuracy of voter rolls. Of course, re-filing this lawsuit wouldn’t serve the defunct recall effort, but it could have other results.

While the voter roll challenge has been categorized by some pundits as collateral damage, it may very well have been an intended target – one that those who orchestrated the recall actually sought to attacked as much, maybe even more, than the Mayor. 

From the beginning, several people, including some from the Mayor Cantrell’s camp, cast the recall effort as Republican-led attempt to weaken the heavily Democratic Orleans Parish voter base ahead of the next gubernatorial race. If that is true,  getting rid of tens of thousands of names on the voter roll could prove exponentially more effective at influencing an statewide race than getting rid of a single elected official.

Moreover, given that Sec. Ardoin has repeatedly referenced the lawsuit in his statements to to focus on bills passed by the state legislature but vetoed by the Governor that would have called for additional canvassing and purging of voter rolls – typical of the Republican-led voter suppression activity taking place across the country – it is probably safe to assume that he is not done, especially if it helps push a narrative that champions voter suppression tactics.

It will be interesting to see how the Secretary of State moves in the wake of the recall’s failure. Will he continue to push for laws that call for more canvassing and purging of voter rolls? How will he make good on his promise to investigate the recall’s claims about local voter rolls?

Meanwhile, the agreement was sanctioned by Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley, who, although she had signed the recall petition, failed to disclose that fact or recuse herself from the case when the recall organizers’ lawsuit landed in her court. The fact that Medley signed the petition without revealing she had done so or stepping away from case, has resulted in its own legal questions.

A lawsuit was filed by the Voice of the Experienced, a non-profit organization that lobbies for policy reform and fights on behalf of voting, housing and employment rights for the formerly incarcerated, seeking to have Medley removed from the case. And Medley has since asked the state Supreme Court to rule on the recusal issue. Perhaps, the question of whether Judge Medley should have revealed that she signed the petition or recused herself still deserves an answer from the state’s high court as it speaks to a much larger issue of judicial ethics.

On Mar. 14, Mayor Cantrell, who, for the most part, has seemed unruffled by the recall activity, finally lodged a legal challenge of her own. Along with registered voter and community leader Rev. Willie Calhoun, the Mayor filed two separate actions contesting the Secretary of State’s authority to strike the deal with recall organizers to lower the number of signatures needed as well as asking the court to vacate Judge Medley’s approval of the agreement, especially in light of Medley signing the petition. And while the recall failed, Orleans Parish voters certainly still have the right to have Ardoin explain his authority to arbitrarily reduce the number of qualified electors or legally registered voters counted for the purposes of the recall, given that those details are explicitly outlined by state law.

Ostensibly, one of the reasons Mayor Cantrell and Rev. Calhoun filed a writ of mandamus compelling Ardoin to explain his authority in the matter is that there would be nothing stopping him or another secretary of state from doing something similar in the future.

In short, the recall effort may be over, but the recall fallout might be far from finished. Or maybe it is all done. Everyone involved will back their bags, withdraw their lawsuits and forget about all of their questions and causes and go home. That could happen.

But will it?

Maybe, the better question is . . . should it?

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