Thursday, July 25, 2024

LaRose: Why you shouldn’t sleep on the Louisiana secretary of state’s race this fall

by BIZ Magazine

Secretary of state hasn’t been one of the more fruitful statewide elected seats in Louisiana government when it comes to its holder advancing to higher profile jobs. Other than Paul Hardy and Jay Dardenne going on to become lieutenant governor, the post hasn’t been much of a launchpad in recent decades.

But it would be wrong to consider the State Department a political graveyard, especially in light of the current state of elections and the likelihood for extensive change in the coming months and years. 

For the following reasons and more, Louisiana’s next secretary of state should expect a fairly intense spotlight and could elevate their prominence beyond their predecessors. Voters should carefully consider who they think is best suited to handle the pressure and attention.

New voting system: The next secretary of state is faced with replacing the voting machines the state uses, a process current office holder Kyle Ardoin has had to restart twice. 

Last year, Ardoin chaired a commission tasked with providing him a recommendation for what technology to purchase for voting precincts statewide. Its hearings became a stage for 2020 presidential election deniers to spout off false claims of fraud.

The commission ended its work with broad suggestions, none of them strong enough to endorse either hand-marked ballots or ballot-marking devices. Ardoin expressed his preference for hand-marked ballots, even though local elections officials raised concerns to him about the increased cost of paper and additional personnel for election day. They also noted the expense to store the paper and anticipated ballot scanning devices. A significant number of polling places and election warehouses aren’t climate controlled.

Election staffing: Most parishes report challenges with finding poll commissioners to work on Election Day. Those on hand to staff precincts are typically up in age, and far too few millennial and Generation Z members are stepping up to replace them at a pace adequate to allow for the transfer of institutional knowledge. 

There are varied reasons for the attrition among poll workers and the inability to attract new ones. They range from low pay to threats from far-right conspiracy theorists. The next secretary of state will have to champion a campaign to help parish election officials inject new blood into their election workforce.

Museum holdings: They really don’t get much hype, but there are nine state museums under the control of the secretary of state. They include the Old State Capitol and the Old Governor’s Mansion in Baton Rouge.

Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser leads the Office of State Museums, which has had its own share of management and funding challenges. He has proposed consolidating oversight of the secretary of state attractions with those under his purview. Whether this effort becomes a political turf battle or a legitimate attempt at efficiency, the next leader at the Department of State will have to contend with the museums’ future rather than allow them to languish under mismanagement, declining visitor counts and inadequate resources.        

Business services: The secretary of state manages a portal for new and existing businesses to put them on the right path so that they can legally operate in Louisiana. The records under this division are a critical resource for commerce and provide the public with information on who’s setting up shop in their area.

The incoming secretary must strive to keep a massive database of business records current and accurate, while making sure access is reliable. 

Contender or pretender: A field of eight candidates are running for secretary of state this fall, four of whom have a background in elected office. Mike Francis, a retired oil and gas service business owner from Crowley, has been a member of the state Public Service Commission since 2017. Nancy Landry, a former state lawmaker, has been Ardoin’s right hand for the past four years. The former top elections official in New Orleans, Arthur Morrell, isn’t ready to retire at age 80, and outgoing House Speaker Clay Schexnayder hopes to make the jump to statewide elected office. 

Political newcomers include Brandon Trosclair, an Ascension Parish grocery store owner who has often repeated unproven allegations about voter fraud.   

Voters would do well to familiarize themselves with how each candidate intends to handle the multifaceted duties of the position while keeping politics out of the department’s inner workings.

Greg LaRose is editor of the Louisiana Illuminator and has covered news in the state for more than 30 years.

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