No written law could have completely prevented the chaos of Sept. 18. All the same, the events of that day revealed gaps in the state election code, and they should be addressed.
Several of those gaps came to light during a recent joint legislative hearing conducted Oct. 1 in the New Orleans City Council Chamber by the Louisiana Senate and House Governmental Affairs committees. For legislators, the confusion at Francis W. Gregory Junior High School served as a perfect example of the problem. At the Seventh Ward's 29th Precinct, housed at Gregory, commissioners didn't turn on the first of four voting machines until 4:11 p.m. on Sept. 18 -- less than four hours before the polls closed. No other precinct turned on its machines later. Problem was, the machines had been there the whole time, sitting in a storage area. The driver told the clerk's office that he'd delivered them the previous day. But no one could find them, so the clerk's office prepared four additional machines from the state warehouse and delivered them to Gregory on Election Day afternoon.
Sen. Jay Dardenne (R-Baton Rouge), one of the legislators conducting the Oct. 1 hearing, didn't understand how this could happen. "You mean we deliver voting machines without a signature?" he asked, raising his eyebrows. "Doesn't protocol require that someone sign for the machines?"
The legislators learned that drivers in Orleans Parish don't even have a list of custodians who should be signing for the deliveries. Many of the machines, after being inspected and sealed before each election, have been delivered to unlocked garages. School and fire-station doors have been left ajar, or keys have been left under mats. A driver testified that "a fairly large percentage" of deliveries are completed without signatures.
This method allowed voting machines to be delivered without delay. Plus, voting machines cannot be turned on without their keys, which are delivered separately to the commissioners. Nonetheless, our Election Code should specify more careful treatment. "These are not soda-pop machines," said the hearing's chair, Sen. Charles D. Jones (D-Monroe). "These are voting machines. They ought not be treated in a cavalier way; they have to be held inviolate."
Other concerns can be addressed by altering the state drayage contract. The contract with Covan World-Wide Moving, the state contractor for the Sept. 18 Orleans Parish voting-machine delivery, specified that all machines be in place by 8 p.m. the night before an election. "Why didn't we know about the problem at 8 p.m. Friday?" asked Sen. Cleo Fields (D-Baton Rouge). In the future, at 8 p.m. on the day before elections, someone should be required to certify to the Secretary of State that all machines are in place. Any delivery problems would be evident at that time, if not earlier.
Criminal Clerk of Court Kimberly Williamson Butler could have done better, even under existing law. Rep. Karen Carter (D-New Orleans) noted that St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes utilized Section 401.1 of the Election Code, which allows polling places to be moved at the last minute in case of emergency. Still, the code lacks specific directions, said Carter. "What happens at 5:30 (a.m.) when somebody knows that at 6 o'clock, some polls won't be up and running? Is there some action that should be taken?" The law should answer those questions.
In many local precincts, voters were cheated out of time at the polls, which normally open from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. Rep. Cheryl Gray (D-New Orleans) noted that polls across town closed, as usual, at 8 p.m., despite the fact that more than 90 precincts did not open on time. "We don't have a way to keep the polls open," said Gray.
Carter also suggested that New Orleans establish a central voting location, something other cities have already done. At a central location -- City Hall, perhaps -- election officials would be able to call up the ballot from any "problem" precinct and allow each vote to be counted in the proper precinct without delay.
Because of Sept. 18, voter confidence has been shaken. "There will always be those in the city who will doubt the results of this election," testified Christine Jenkins, a past president of the League of Women Voters. That's why lawmakers should do all they can to strengthen Louisiana's election laws. Section 1461 of the election code already describes election offenses and specifies penalties of up to $1,000 -- plus a year in jail -- for violations. Legislators, prosecutors and election officials must send a message to voters that their rights will be protected. Looking ahead, all of us should anticipate the local and national elections of Nov. 2. Earlier this month, a Gambit Weekly reporter attended voting-commissioner training sessions. The rules for federal provisional voting are complex, and verbal instructions on these new procedures were sketchy at best. In their oversight capacity, lawmakers should ask election officials to report on their preparations for the Nov. 2 elections. Some tough questions now could reduce human error -- and avoid a national embarrassment -- the next time Louisiana votes.