02 May 2007

Committee action, May 2: HB 474, 698, 248, 347, 575, 619

Rep. Jim Morris broke his maiden with HB 554, a bill concerning procedures regarding notarial exams, and received the hearty congratulations of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee. It also had now on it a new member to the chamber as well, Patrick Williams.

HB 474 by Chairman Charlie Lancaster cleans up a number of mostly technical matters dealing with the state election code. Sec. of State Jay Dardenne filled in the committee about the lengthy bill. Perhaps its most significant change was that it would not permit drivers’ license numbers and mothers’ maiden names to be released publicly. Technical amendments went unread and undebated, and everything about it was passed without objection. HB 698 by Lancaster did the same regarding the old-new closed federal election primaries to begin next year where otherwise there could be inconsistency in its implication (clarifying the mandate that no-party “independent” voters could vote in a major party primary unless the central committee resolved not to allow it). Amendments were placed on it and the measure passed without objection.

HB 248 by Rep. Glenn Ansardi would add a week of early voting and shorten by one hour on both ends hours of election day. Supporters argue that election commissioners are being discouraged from participating because of long hours on election day, and more early voting would create more beneficial flexibility.

Rep. Juan LaFonta said he had shown up just for this bill. “I’ve never liked this bill,” he said, and then got less complimentary. He said senior citizens needed earlier hours and that shift workers needed all 14 hours. He said there was no way he could vote for the bill. Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock echoed that, saying she couldn’t understand why shorter hours would attract more commissioners and that early voting extended hours would not compensate because different kinds of people voted early.

Dardenne said his statistics showed the 6-7 AM and 7-8 PM hours had the least amount of participation, together less than 10 percent of the total. St. Tammany parish statistics showed between 7-9 percent turnout over several elections, with the evening portion being about double that of the morning. Clerks and other election officials testified that it was becoming increasingly difficult to recruit commissioners as training requirements have become tougher, and that long hours were a major impediment to recruiting.

Rep. Jeff Arnold said there were other alternatives that should be tried before cutting hours, such as split shifts. But officials reported this just would mean more training of more people and mid-day personnel headaches, plus continuity problems between “shifts” that might cause lawsuits. Arnold insisted that none of this would be known unless it was tried.

Vice Chairman Rick Gallot offered an amendment to strip out the reduction of hours. Since Democrats outnumbered Republicans and it fell on a party-line vote (with a GOP absence), it passed. The amended bill then passed without objection. Rep. Wayne Waddell apparently had been aware of this situation and had asked on this contingency to defer his similar HB 648, Lancaster announced.

Gallot’s HB 347 would increase salaries considerably for election commissioners, in most cases doubling them. Many had spoken favorably on the idea during the HB 248, so Lancaster moved to send it to Appropriations to investigate covering the $5 million-plus additional annual cost, which the committee approved without objection.

HB 575 by LaFonta would have absentee ballots sent unsolicited to all registered voters. He said this would increase voting turnout. Lancaster asked why not go all the way and get rid of precinct-based voting. LaFonta said he didn’t want to get rid of the precincts, seeing it as a disaster-related issue to supplement the current system, which is why its cost would be an extra $16 million. Dardenne said this would cause adoption of a two-track election system that would create tremendous issues; he said study rather than action was warranted.

Arnold said he was willing to introduce an amendment, if the disasters really were the impetus, to make the bill apply retroactively and the state could redo elections back to the end of 2005. On second thought, he said he wouldn’t. Acknowledging the sarcasm, LaFonta suggested that might have constitutional problems.

Lancaster said one system or the other should be picked. Gallot said study rather than action was appropriate. After a technical amendment, LaFonta asked for passage, but a motion was made to defer which failed along party lines. The same allowed the bill to prevail, and it also will head to the Appropriations Committee.

HB 619 by Jefferson would restore the legislation that allowed for displaced voting, with the provisions. This would include allowing first-time voters who had not positively identified themselves to election authorities. She called the prior experiment successful but said conditions had not changed enough so that it still was needed.

Dardenne testified that, from a policy standpoint, it was not a good idea, primarily because the previous rules applied only to the New Orleans city elections, not the entire state. “It would be a disaster” he said, creating far too complicated situations for an election to be run properly. He pointed out numerous options existed for displaced voters, including the existing early/absentee procedures. There were many technical problems with it, as well – for example, every satellite precinct would have to have ballots for every state election. “You are going to create chaos … if you pass this bill.”

Rep. Mert Smiley argued that the 38 percent turnout in the New Orleans mayor’s race wasn’t really that successful. Dardenne said as far as procedurally, it worked well. Arnold said only 5 percent turned out for recent judge’s races, but Lancaster pointed out these were very different kinds of contests. Dardenne emphasized the infrastructure simply was not there to handle this and would be much more costly. Jefferson disagreed that there would be chaos and that it could be figured out.

Lancaster asked what was possible without any large-scale changes. Dardenne said the FAX/mail procedure would not be very disruptive. Lancaster said at least the 3,700 or so who voted by that way should be given that chance again.

Rep. Hunter Greene noted that the bill did not require any official verification of a ballot that the person casting it was displaced. “You have to balance the possibility of fraud with these ways of voting,” he noted. He didn’t see why they couldn’t just make a request and drop an absentee ballot in the mail. He also noted that after a year and a half many of these “displaced” people were really more citizens of where they now live rather than being citizens of Louisiana. Jefferson insisted people were changing locations too often to have mail catch up with them.

Lancaster said Jefferson should strip the bill down and that he could only support a “reasonable” bill. “We can’t pass an ‘impossible’ bill,” he said, a term with which Jefferson kept complaining about its use. Rep. Charmaine Marchand said this attitude “disturbed” her. Lancaster offered an amendment that would take out satellite centers and create a sunset provision, as Dardenne had said the automatic sending of the absentee ballot to displaced voters, with adequate ballot security, was not that disruptive but would be very labor intensive and would delay reporting of the results.

But Jefferson said she “can’t compromise” and LaFonta asked for a vote. Once more, Democrats allowed the bill to prevail on a party-line vote.

The chairman admonished me not to touch anything while he was gone.
Gallot, after Lancaster ducked out for a moment.

We’re going to turn House and Governmental into Appropriations.
Lancaster, after a series of bills passed that would imposed tens of millions of new costs.

Next week, the controversial meeting.
Lancaster, referring to the slew of ethics bills coming up on the next week’s agenda.

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