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Going Postal

Although participation and public access leave much to be desired, the Legislature is beginning to use mail ballots with more frequency.

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Louisiana's Legislature is unique in that it often depends on stamps and postmen for making major policy decisions. In other words, lawmakers often vote by mail, which is a process that allows correspondence to trump traditional debate. House and Senate staffers, in fact, spent most of last week stamping and counting mail ballots that proposed initial funding for the state's post-Katrina housing program.

They usually don't receive glamorous press coverage, and they aren't treated with the same reverence as session votes, but postal proxies can result in major governmental action. Through the first week of August, lawmakers have been asked to vote by mail on nine ballot issues since 2004 -- not including an emergency vote taken earlier this year to hold elections in hurricane-ravaged New Orleans.

A review of the ballots, made possible through a public information request, reveals a participation rate that fluctuates from well below par to simply average. Additionally, the mail votes are not accorded the same standards as session votes when it comes to public access. They are not published in the Legislature's on-line database or in the state's official journal.

The lack of additional recordkeeping can have significant repercussions. For instance, the state Senate was unable to find any recorded votes for a 2005 mail ballot in which lawmakers decided against holding a veto session. Glenn Koepp, secretary of the Senate, says the ballots, as well as the tally sheet showing who voted how, were likely misplaced when being moved from one office to another. In short, the documents are lost.

"We tore this place apart looking for it," he says. "I think we just lost it."

The way the mail balloting process, and the votes themselves, are treated by the Legislature is more important than ever because mail ballots are about to increase in frequency and importance. Legislative approval will be needed whenever the Louisiana Recovery Authority wants to spend more than $10 million on efforts to rebuild south Louisiana in the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The LRA was formed as a clearinghouse for federal money and other rebuilding initiatives. House Clerk Butch Speer says the change could translate into roughly seven more mail ballots each year. This month alone, his staff will administer two LRA ballots on housing and labor. "We're going to be seeing a lot more of them," he says.

Traditionally, lawmakers have voted by mail on only two topics: whether to hold a veto session to override a governor's vetoes, and to ratify certain actions by the Interim Emergency Board, a committee that handles emergency expenses that lawmakers don't address during the annual legislative process. However, more and more in recent years, the board has asked lawmakers to approve appropriations ranging from canal lock repairs for Acadiana to storm recovery money for Golden Meadow.

Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, says this form of voting may be unique to Louisiana. She says the idea of lawmakers voting by mail when not in session is a new one to her -- even though it has been a Louisiana practice for decades.

"Generally, members of legislatures are expected to be present to vote, but there are a few exceptions," Erickson says. "Most legislatures don't allow remote voting."

When it comes to returning mail ballots to Baton Rouge, lawmakers' "attendance" records run the gamut. According to records provided by the House clerk's office, Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, has the worst voting record -- by mail -- in the entire Legislature. Richmond doesn't have a single recorded vote on any of the nine mail ballots since 2004. When questioned, he suggests the tally sheets are "incorrect."

"I remember filling those ballots out," Richmond says.

Richmond also argues that three of his votes -- all on veto sessions -- didn't have to be sent in, which is technically correct. Veto sessions are called automatically after each legislative session unless a majority of lawmakers return ballots canceling the session. Thus, an absent vote on the tally sheet could mean a lawmaker was in favor of a veto session or didn't bother voting at all. Staffers admit it's a confusing process and not very effective at determining where elected officials stand.

Several members of the House and Senate rival Richmond's record.

Finding all of this data is relatively simple -- if you live or work in Baton Rouge. You just have to go to the State Capitol and ask for it. That's a far cry from the way votes are recorded during legislative sessions. Such votes are posted on the Legislature's Web site and date back to 1997. In most cases, they're also printed in the state's official journal.

Not so for mail ballots. They are not posted on-line, not printed in any official journal, and generally not accessible unless ask for them in person.

Speer and Koepp say there isn't much interest in reforming mail balloting. Unless the House and Senate pass rules changing that process, the only thing that will change is the number being mailed out.

Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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