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by Anitra D. Brown

When the Louisiana Legislature started its session on Monday, April 12, there were already more than a dozen pre-filed bills concerning elections and voting waiting for its members in both chambers to consider. 

Some are good—expansive bills that would increase access to the polls and make voting easier. For instance, state Rep. Fed Jones’ HB 286 would extend early voting. And state Rep. Ted James’ HB 285 would extend the three-minute rule — the time voters are allowed to make their choices inside the booth.

Janae Jamison, Director of Programs for the Power Coalition, a non-profit organization in Louisiana that works to increase and expand democracy through voting and civic engagement with specific focus on Black and Brown communities, is hopeful for bi-partisan support of these two bills, saying that in the continued COVID reality, expanding early voting remains important. 

She adds that “the three-minute rule, folks are not widely educated on that,” Jamison says. “We know that in Louisiana, we have frequent elections and long ballots. When you look at 2020, we had 10 different amendments, the DA’s race, judges, and school board. It takes a person an adequate amount of time to feel confident and secure in casting their ballot. It takes more than three minutes.”

Then there are others that may not seem like outright attempts at voter suppression, though that is what they are. These are the ones that give us pause. These are the ones that Jamison says the Power Coalition has flagged, adding that in Louisiana the attacks on voting are not always obvious. 

“You see the small things—the consolidated polling locations, the long lines, technical difficulties on the secretary of state’s website,” she says.  “There are certain (legislative) pieces that may focus on stopping the use of mail-in ballots, but its connecting that to the false narrative of voter fraud and having to present your ballot to someone in person.”

Republican lawmakers, state senators Sharon Hewitt, Heather Cloud and Robert Mills, along with state Rep. Les Farnum and others, have proposed bills during the 2021 legislative session that would make voting more restrictive and push the fabricated and already debunked narratives surrounding voter fraud and election integrity that were promulgated in the 2020 election. Cloud’s SB 219, which is awaiting a vote by the full senate, would allow parish registrars of voters to compare their voter rolls with local publicly-owned utility companies’ customer information in an attempt to hound (and ultimately purge) voters who have moved. Mills’ bill would mandate that absentee ballots be hand-delivered to an employee of the registrar of voter’s office. And Farnum wants to add an additional annual canvassing of voter rolls—a move that would result in the purging of voters. Meanwhile, Hewitt’s SB 221, which would form committees to oversee the selection of voting machines, has advanced through a senate committee. So why these and other attacks on voting here and in other states? Noted commentator, economist, author, and former college president Julianne Malveaux makes it plain in a recent column about the attack on voting rights being waged across the nation. “They don’t want our souls at the polls,” she wrote.

For example, state Sen. Robert Mill’s SB 63 would require absentee ballots to be delivered to a registrar of voters’ employee instead of postmarked and delivered by mail. You know, the way it has always been successfully done. State Sen. Sharon Hewitt’s SB 221 wants to define and redefine voting machines and outline a litany of requirements for their procurement and evaluation—a bill that clearly seeks to further the already debunked narrative about malfunctioning or compromised voting machines promulgated by Trump and his followers in the wake of his loss last fall. 

Current law allows the secretary of state to establish rules relating to the preparation and use of voting systems. It also states that the secretary of state is responsible for the procurement of new voting systems. Hewitt’s proposed bill would require these duties to be carried out in coordination with a new oversight committee that would be formed with its passage.

There is even another, SB 219 offered by state Sen. Heather Cloud that would allow parish registrars of voters to compare their lists of voters with a local publicly-owned utility company’s customer information in an attempt to hound (and ultimately purge) voters who have moved, but failed to update their voter registration to their new address. Yep, you read that right. What’s more is that as of press time, this was pending final approval of the full senate.

Unlike many of their colleagues on the other side of the aisle, state representatives Ted James and Fred Jones, both Democrats, have authored bills introduced in the current session that seek to expand voting rights and access to the polls. Rep. Fred Jones’ HB 286 would extend early voting. And state Rep. Ted James’ HB 285 would extend the three-minute rule — the time voters are allowed to make their choices inside the booth. Janae Jamison of the Power Coalition, a Louisiana non-profit that works to expand democracy through civic engagement, is hopeful for bi-partisan support for these two bills. However, as of press time, neither bill had been considered and both are pending in the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

As we take a look at proposed and recently enacted laws regarding voting and elections here and across the nation, one thing is clear: While not one of the Republicans in the state legislature will admit it, almost all of their proposed bills are connected to voter suppression.

Besides the three restrictive bills referenced above, the following bills are also up for consideration in the current legislative session.

Much like Hewitt’s SB 221, which has advanced through the senate committee, state Rep. Barry Ivey’s HB 653 also addresses standards and requirements surrounding the acquisition of voting machines and systems. State Sen. Louie Bernard’s SB 64 moves to place further restrictions on prohibited activities during early voting and Election Day.

State Rep. Les Farnum’s HB138 would add an additional annual canvassing of registered voters to identify voters who have moved and need to update their voter registration applications to their current addresses and who did not do so in the annual canvass. The proposed bill would also require those voters to be placed on the inactive list of voters until the registrant confirms that the address on the confirmation card is correct. It would also mandate that a voter’s registration be canceled after a period of two regularly scheduled federal general elections if the voter fails to respond to the confirmation card. 

So why these and other attacks on voting both here in Louisiana and in other states?

The noticeable increases in participation among Black and Latinx Louisianans are an obvious target. 

“We have been able to see infrequent voters of color actually turn into chronic voters, expressing the urgency of the power of (their) vote and utilizing that power,”  Jamison says. “Beginning in 2019, the Power Coalition was able to touch 1.3 million folks throughout the state of Louisiana; and of those, 465,000 actually turned out to vote. We saw a significant increase. In fact, 52 percent of voters of color actually turned out to vote in 2019, which is on par with White voters. And we saw in 2020, early voting was in a significant, almost historical turnout, with almost one million folks early voting and 30 percent of Black folks early voting. We even saw in a runoff that, proportionately, Black voters turned out in higher numbers than White voters. It was 17.1 percent White voters and 17.8 percent Black voters.”

Noted commentator, economist, author, and former college president Julianne Malveaux put it more plainly in a recent column about the attack on voting rights being waged across the nation. “They don’t want our souls at the polls,” she wrote.

Of course, Louisiana is not alone, and Republican-led legislatures across the nation have sought to enact a number of restrictive voting laws clearly aimed at making voting more difficult for already marginalized citizens.

Here are just a few examples:

• Arkansas has enacted two bills that tightened the state’s voter ID requirements. Arkansas’s old voter ID law allowed voters who arrived at their polling place without valid identification to vote a provisional ballot if they signed a sworn statement attesting that they were registered to vote. HB 1112 eliminates this option, and it requires voters who show up without identification to return to the county clerk’s office by the Monday following the election with qualifying identification in order to have their vote counted. 

• Utah enacted a bill that will make faulty purges more likely. The bill requires county clerks to cross-reference all death certificates against voter registration rolls and remove the names of dead voters within 10 days. Because the law does not require any notice to the voters being removed, does not require auditing of the source data, and does not specify how many data points must be matched, it creates a risk that county clerks will remove the wrong names from their voter registration rolls.

• In Iowa, SF 413 is an omnibus elections bill that incorporated elements of two other restrictive bills that Iowa legislators had previously proposed. The new law risks flawed voter purges by moving voters to inactive status every time they miss a federal election, requiring Iowa to use U.S. Postal Service change-of-address data for list maintenance, and threatening county auditors with criminal prosecution for not abiding by voter roll purge practices. SF 413 also restricts access to absentee voting by giving voters less time to apply for absentee ballots, barring local officials from affirmatively sending out absentee ballot applications, limiting election officials’ discretion to provide ballot drop boxes, and further restricting who can assist an absentee voter in returning their ballot. It also restricts early voting by shortening the early voting period by nine days and limiting election officials’ discretion to offer additional early voting locations. And it rolls back Election Day voting by requiring polls to close an hour earlier than they previously had and reducing the amount of paid time off employers must give people to go vote.

• Of course, there is Georgia SB 202 signed into law by Gov. Brian Kemp on March 25. The omnibus elections bill incorporates elements of at least 16 other bills that Georgia legislators had previously introduced. It limits absentee voting by requiring voters to provide a state identification number or photocopy of an identifying document with their absentee ballot application, barring election officials from affirmatively sending out ballot applications, giving voters less time to apply for an absentee ballot, and sharply restricting the availability and hours of drop boxes. It also effectively reduces early voting in many counties by standardizing early voting days and hours. The bill affirmatively sanctions “mass challenges” to voter eligibility, meaning that one person can come to a county clerk’s office and seek to have an unlimited number of voters removed from the voter rolls for being ineligible (though such efforts can violate the National Voter Registration Act). SB 202 even criminalizes the act of giving snacks or water to voters waiting in line at polling places.

And this is just the tip of an iceberg big enough to sink a giant cruise ship. As the Brennan Center for Justice notes, state lawmakers have introduced a “startling” number of bills aimed at making voting more difficult for the masses. As of March 24, legislators have introduced 361 bills with restrictive provisions in 47 states—108 more than the 253 restrictive bills tallied as of February 19, 2021 — a 43 percent increase in little more than a month.

These measures have begun to be enacted, with the five outlined above already signed into law. Another 55 restrictive bills in 24 states are moving through legislatures. At least 29 of them have passed at least one chamber, while another 26 have had some sort of committee action. And for just another layer of perspective, it is critical to note that this is all in response to 2020’s historic voter turnout and has been done under the pretense of addressing baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities.

Proposed Legislation Is Not the Only Tool of Attack

Closer to home, residents concerned about free and fair elections have more than the plethora of restrictive bills introduced in the current legislative session. 

Recently, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin announced the formation of the Louisiana Commission on Election Integrity and Voting. The question is “Why?” In the statement announcing the commission, Ardoin himself said, “Despite the challenges brought on by natural disasters and a global pandemic, the 2020 Presidential election in Louisiana was free from controversy as seen in other states around the country. With a record turnout of 70.1 percent in approximately 4,000 precincts across the state, our results were fully uploaded just after midnight.”

Then, he said this: “In the months since the Presidential election, despite being a national leader in election administration, questions have been raised regarding the integrity of Louisiana’s election processes and procedures by voters concerned with stories of voting issues in other parts of the country.”

Translation: Louisiana’s Secretary of State seems more than happy to ride the bandwagon of false claims of voter fraud and unfounded allegations of questionable election integrity to make nice with other members of his political party—one that has clearly lost its way, especially over during the previous four years.

Ardoin’s bipartisan commission will be tasked with providing “an overview of our election processes”, while also answering a series of rather inexact and vague questions about how to assure continued confidence in elections, combat voter fatigue and improve voters’ experiences.

Ardoin’s own announcement actually points out that Louisiana voters are confident in their election processes. So why is the narrative being muddied by the creation of a commission that just is not needed?

We should be concerned about having a Republican Secretary of State create an election integrity commission in an environment where Republicans across the nation at the highest levels have made false and egregious allegations of voter fraud to fuel their own desire to make voting more difficult for Black, Latinx and other marginalized communities. 

So we will ask again: Why do we need this commission? Why do we need most of these proposed bills? 

According to a press release announcing the formation of the Commission, it “will be made up of a diverse group of experts in the fields of election administration, cyber security and technology, and business and industry. Former state Rep. Quentin Dastugue will chair the commission. Dastugue is a former four-term member of the Louisiana House of Representatives; elected as a Democrat to the House in 1979 and 1983 from the 82nd District in Old Jefferson. He began his second term in 1984 as a Republican, after switching parties.

The commission will begin meeting after the conclusion of the 2021 regular legislative session, and will issue their final report to Secretary Ardoin no later than February 1, 2022. And we will be watching…