Legislature tackles voter, election bills

Emily Wood | LSU Manship School News Service

BATON ROUGE–Seven bills and one House resolution about voting and elections advanced through the House and Senate committees on governmental affairs Wednesday.

The resolution, sponsored by House Speaker Clay Schexnayder, provides criteria for considering redistricting plans to draw boundaries for seats in Congress and the state Legislature based on 2020 Census information.

Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, speaking on behalf of Schexnayder, R-Gonzales, said that a joint group that drafted the resolution used the rules for redistricting from 10 years ago as a guiding point.

The criteria include compliance with the Voting Rights Act, respecting recognized political boundaries and natural geography of the state and keeping districts substantially equal.

Rep. Wilford Carter Sr., D-Lake Charles, expressed his concerns that racial demographics were not taken into consideration in the resolution. African Americans are concerned that the while they make up 30% of the state’s population, they can only realistically win one of the seven congressional seats based on how the districts are now drawn.

But Stefanski pointed to the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th and 15th Amendments in the United States Constitution included in the resolution.

“We are going to follow the law, we are going to follow the numbers and we are going to draw the fairest maps we can,” said Stefanski, who chairs the House Governmental Affairs Committee, which will oversee the process.

The resolution passed favorably without opposition and will move to the House floor.

Senate Bill 224, sponsored by Rep. Heather Cloud, R-Turkey Creek, would mandate that a Louisiana driver’s license number or the last four digits of a Social Security number be included on an absentee ballot.

Current absentee ballots have a place for voters to add their driver’s license number or the last four digits of their social security number, but that is not required.

The bill would allow for an absentee ballot to be challenged if information provided at the polls did not match a voter’s registration data.

Stefanski expressed concerns that placing too much personal information on the absentee ballot for election workers to call out when counting the ballots would give someone ample opportunity to steal identification information.

“Though we want to protect the identity, we also want to protect the ballot,” said Sen. Cloud. She said numerical information, rather than a signature that is required now, would be more fool-proof.

Terry Landry Jr., the policy director for Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, spoke in opposition to the bill. He cited a database of election fraud cases maintained by the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C., that had recorded no cases of fraud on absentee ballots in Louisiana over the past 20 years.

“This just creates an undue burden to our citizens, and it will create the disenfranchisement of our voters,” said Landry.

The bill passed through the committee 7-6 and will now be heard on the House floor.

Senate Bill 220, also sponsored by Cloud, would require the Louisiana Legislative Auditor to examine election processes to prevent election fraud.

Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, noted that the election conversation is coming on the heels of a false national narrative of election fraud.

He brought up an incident last June where the secretary of state’s website was down for scheduled maintenance on National Voter Registration Day.

“I find that to be very problematic,” said Duplessis. “I will have the conversation, but I want to have the full conservation.”

The bill moved through the committee without objection and will now be heard on the House floor for debate.

Other voted bills moving through the House and Senate committees without objection on Tuesday included:

— Senate Bill 63, which would clarify that hand delivery of an absentee ballot must occur in a voting registrar’s office, an early voting location during early voting or a mobile voter registration unit.

— House Bill 138, which would require registrars of voters to conduct a supplemental canvass to identify voters who have moved and need to update their voter registration addresses.

The bill also would require that a voter’s registration shall be canceled after a period of two regularly scheduled federal general elections if the voter failed to respond to the confirmation card. It would affect local rather than state elections.

— House Bill 329, which would allow all minors to accompany a parent or legal guardian into a voting machine to help educate them about voting.

— House Bill 330, which would allow for an increase in poll commissioners in each voting precinct during the presidential preference primary election to help fix any problems more quickly.

— House Bill 388, which would extend the time for a parish to prepare and verify absentee mail and early voting ballots before election day to enable parishes to count ballots more quickly.