Note: This story has been updated to include the details of the agreement.
The signature-count threshold needed to trigger a general election to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell would be lowered from about 50,000 to about 45,000 in a surprising court settlement reached Wednesday (March 1) between the recall drive organizers and the Secretary of State’s office.
The details of the settlement were not available until late Wednesday evening, but a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office said earlier in the day that no voters would be declared inactive or removed from the rolls in the process.
Some observers, including Cantrell herself, have expressed concerns that the recall campaign’s legal challenge was a backdoor strategy to purge New Orleans voters from the rolls. But it appears the deal won’t change anyone’s voter status.
Instead, the secretary of state will simply lower the threshold of the number of signatures the recall petition needs in order to trigger a general recall election. John Tobler, deputy secretary of communications with the Secretary of State’s office, said the threshold will be lowered as if 25,000 people were removed from the list of active New Orleans voters.
But under the terms of the deal, which was signed by Orleans Parish Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley on Wednesday, no one will be moved to the inactive voter list, he said.
“No one’s being removed,” Tobler said. “Essentially, the total number of the electorate is going to be reduced by 25,000 … And that was an agreed upon number to sort of make both parties satisfied. But no one is being removed.”
State law provides that, prior to the collection of signatures for a recall petition, a recall campaign must submit the petition to the Secretary of State’s office, which then “shall produce a report of the number of qualified electors” to the campaign. Under the deal, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin will change the number in that communication from about 250,000 to about 225,000.
Tobler said that the deal and lower active voter count will only apply to the Cantrell recall petition, not future petitions or elections.
The deal appears to put to rest concerns that the recall campaign was trying to purge New Orleans voters from the rolls.
Cantrell and other recall critics have noted the recall campaign is almost entirely funded by Rick Farrell, a local businessman and prominent Republican donor. And critics have pointed out that lawyers representing the recall campaign have ties to the Louisiana Republican party.
“This is really no longer about recalling me as the mayor,” Cantrell said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “It’s evident that this recall is just not about me. It’s about disenfranchisement of our voters, particularly Black voters in this city.”
However, the recall campaign agreed to provide Ardoin all evidence and materials it gathered to support its suit. The campaign’s case relied on a data analysis by Gulf Coast Resources, which purportedly identified tens of thousands of active New Orleans voters who should have been moved to the inactive list because they had likely moved from the city or died. That report has not yet been made public.
In a Wednesday statement, Ardoin vowed to conduct a review of the allegedly ineligible voters, which could lead to some being moved to the inactive list at a later date.
But even if the deal had changed the active voter list, it would not have immediately affected anyone’s right to vote. Under state law, inactive voters can still vote on election day or by early or absentee ballot. If they fail to come to the polls for a period of time that includes two regularly scheduled federal elections, they could then be removed from the rolls entirely.
“The mayor knows that an inactive voter can vote,” Eileen Carter, chair of the recall committee, told Verite. “To continue this misinformation and confuse voters shows she’s disingenuous.”
Cantrell’s office declined to comment for this story.
Campaign claimed about 33,000 voters on active rolls should be inactive
The settlement is the result of a lawsuit that the recall campaign brought against Ardoin and Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson last month. The campaign alleged that the offices had failed in their duties to perform a thorough voter canvass and maintain an accurate count of “active” Orleans Parish voters.
In its suit, the recall campaign argued the office failed to move roughly 33,000 people to the inactive voter list, allegedly including hundreds who have died and thousands who have moved out of state or out of Orleans Parish.
The number of signatures the recall petition needs to trigger an election is 20 percent of the city’s active voters — 49,976 signatures based on the Secretary of State’s data.
The deal reached Wednesday would lower that threshold to 44,976.
Attorneys representing the recall campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment. But in a statement released Wednesday before the details of the agreement were publicly available, the recall campaign seemed to indicate that the deal would in fact result in voters being moved to the inactive list.
“The voters who will be placed on the inactive list have moved outside of Orleans Parish and have notified the US Post Office of such or have died,” the statement said.
Carter, the chair of the recall committee and lead plaintiff in the suit, declined to discuss the specifics of the deal.
Two lawyers representing the recall campaign in the lawsuit did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Recall organizers turned their signatures into Wilson’s office on Feb. 22, claiming they have gathered enough signatures to trigger a recall election. But the campaign has yet to disclose its signature count. The campaign also refused to provide copies of signatures, which are considered public records under state law, in response to requests to The Times-Picayune.
The newspaper sued the campaign last month for the records. And the two sides later reached a settlement, where the recall campaign promised to provide them on Feb. 22. As the deadline approached, however, the recall campaign demanded the newspaper pay $15,000 for the records, though the settlement did not mention copying fees. Late last month, the Times-Picayune asked a judge to hold the campaign in contempt. A contempt hearing was set to be held on Wednesday via videoconference.
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