By Wes Muller, Louisiana Illuminator
Members of a state panel studying ways to increase early voting turnout have settled on a basic solution to the issue — more money.
Louisiana’s Task Force on Early Voting approved a measure Tuesday to recommend an expansion of early voting sites across the state and an increase in voter outreach efforts contingent on receiving adequate funding for elections from the Louisiana Legislature.
The task force, created last year through a resolution authored by Sen. Gary Carter, D-New Orleans, is charged with finding the best ways to increase early voting turnout and forwarding them as recommendations to the legislature.
Prior to adopting the measure, the panel heard testimony from Joel Watson, who manages outreach services for the Secretary of State’s Office. Watson presented data on how early voting has impacted elections across the country.
Early voting first became available in Louisiana in 2006, beginning with 71 early voting sites across 64 parishes. It has steadily grown since then to 109 sites for the fall 2022 election, Watson said.
Most states offer early voting periods ranging from three to 46 days with an average length of 23 days. Louisiana’s early voting period will expand from seven to 10 days for presidential general elections starting next year.
There is no evidence to indicate longer early voting periods increase overall turnout. Rather, it just shifts when existing voters cast their ballots, according to data and studies Watson presented.
Task force members, many of whom are local election officials, agreed that expanding the number of early voting sites would make it easier for residents in their parishes to vote. The problem is the cost.
The startup cost for a small site runs about $22,000 and costs about the same to operate each year, Watson said.
Ascension Parish Clerk of Court Bridget Hanna said her parish council members did not want to pay to staff a second early voting site for the 2020 presidential election. She ended up paying for the staff out of her own budget because she knew many Ascension Parish voters needed a location closer to their workplace to vote before the polls closed.
“I just felt like I knew that was a need out in the northern end of my parish because so many people work in Baton Rouge but live in Prairieville, and they just couldn’t make it for 6 o’clock to get to Gonzales,” Hanna said.
Hanna said election officials in other parishes might not have the budget to make such special accommodations.
First Assistant Secretary of State Nancy Landry agreed and said many parishes have been unwilling to fund additional early voting sites.
“I think all of us would like to increase the locations and make early voting sites more convenient for people, but it is a challenge financially,” Landry said. “The parishes have to cover that cost.”
Other task force members said Louisiana has too many elections and voters often complain they were unaware an election was taking place. They agreed they would like to see more funding from the legislature to allow the Secretary of State’s office to conduct more voter outreach.
“Sometimes there’s just not somebody willing to spend money on an election,” Landry said.
According to Carter’s resolution, the task force has until March 1 to finalize its recommendations and submit its report to the Senate.