Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Spivak: Failed Cantrell recall effort could lead to changes in Louisiana law

by BIZ Magazine

The action-packed recall attempt against New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell failed in explosive fashion. The registrar of voters, who tossed out almost 60% of the signatures, noting some sheets were filled with cartoon names and many were reportedly copies.

There have been plenty of recall attempts across the country that flamed out, but few have done so in such a spectacular manner.

While Cantrell may be safe, there is now discussion on changing Louisiana’s recall law. Unlike states such as California, Wisconsin and Michigan, Louisiana has never been a big user of recalls. The state has only had a handful of recalls over the years, even though there have been egregious actors on the political scene.  State Rep. Paul Hollis, R-Covington, has suggested a way to make recalls more popular — lower the effective signature requirement to get on the ballot.

A look at other states shows that Louisiana’s signature requirement is a significant hurdle. At one point, the state arguably required the most signatures of any in the country, 33.3% of registered voters. In 2016, the state moved to require the signatures of 20% of registered voters of the targeted jurisdiction in order to get a recall on the ballot, which is still higher than most states. New Jersey requires the signatures of 25% of registered voters, and Idaho also requires 20% of registered voters.

The proposed change would be a simple one – it would tie the signature requirement to voter turnout for the office in the last election rather than total registered voters.

This is not a minor technical change. It would lead to a steep drop in the signatures needed. For example, to recall the governor, the number would be cut nearly in half, from 594,230 to 301,757. This change would actually put Louisiana in the low end of signature requirements compared to other states, as Kansas requires the signatures of 40% of voter turnout and nine states require 25% of turnout.

One big benefit would be that it would allow the state to sidestep one of the legal issues that plagued the Cantrell recall — whether the voter rolls were properly updated and that, according to the petitioners, led to an inflated signature requirement, albeit one that they still didn’t come close to clearing the secretary of state settled the case, though the legal grounds seemed shaking and is still be appealed by the mayor.

This proposal would definitely make recalls more likely, for good or ill. Elected officials may not be too thrilled to have a greater chance of being removed and voters may both like the power but grow weary of the more recall threats.

But there is another change that the state should make for clarity purposes that could prove decisive in recall campaigns. Louisiana has an unusual overtime provision. The state allows voters as many as five additional days after the signatures are handed in to either add or strike their names from the recall petitions.

 Some states have a provision allowing petitioners to strike their names from petitions. Other states allow petitioners to “cure” any signatures that have defects in them. But no state that I’ve seen gives extra time to actually collect signatures.

There seems to be no reason for this added time. Louisiana is actually very generous with the amount of time allotted to collect the signatures. The 180 days ranks fifth among states, well above the 60 days that Wisconsin gave petitioners to collect approximately 900,000 signatures to recall Scott Walker in 2012. What this extra time does is lead to confusion and potential problems.

The petitioners handed a second batch of signatures during the overtime period. This seemed to be a violation of the law, as it could be that the add and strike signatures have to be collected and handed in during the five day window.  While the petitioners have not given a solid reason for why they waited, it is certainly possible that other petition-gatherers, who are generally volunteers, would make the same mistake.

It also appears to be that the signatures for the add and strike period must be collected and dated in that window and would not follow the exact formula as the original petitions (specifically, they would need to cite they are requested to be added or dropped from the petitions and they would need to include additional information, such as their birthdate).

The provision also gives the registrar more of a potential mischief-making role than voters should be comfortable with. The provision allowing a recall would cut short this five day period if the registrar works quickly and certifies the recall signatures before the five days ends. Since most recalls take place in small jurisdictions, this could actually be a concern. It would make sense for officials to remove this provision.

With the failure of the Cantrell recall effort, Louisiana will not be seeing a high-profile recall in action. But the brouhaha surrounding the effort has pointed out some real deficiencies in the law. For anyone who would like to ease the path to recalls, changing the signature requirement is an excellent way to go. But fixing the add and strike period is one fix that should be made before future efforts fail based on this odd and unclear provision.

Joshua Spivak is a senior research fellow at Berkeley Law’s California Constitution Center and a senior fellow at the Hugh L. Carey Institute for Government Reform at Wagner College.

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