Judge refuses to dismiss toll vote lawsuit

Jefferson Parish’s deputy registrar of voters testified Monday that more than 90 registered voters showed up at their correct voting precincts Nov. 6 but were given provisional ballots that did not allow them to vote on the Crescent City Connection toll renewal referendum that passed by just 36 votes.

State District Judge William Morvant cited Philip Trupiano’s trial testimony, among other testimony, in denying a motion to dismiss a lawsuit that seeks to nullify
the results of the referendum to extend tolls on the Mississippi River bridge for 20 years.

The bench trial of the suit will resume Tuesday when the state defendants — including the Governor’s Office and Secretary of State’s Office — will call their own witnesses.

Michael Teachworth, director of the citizens group Stop the Tolls LLC, filed the suit in December. He was among 15 witnesses called to the stand Monday by the plaintiffs.

Christine Reine, of Marrero in Jefferson Parish, testified that on Sept. 23 she registered to vote online and went to the polls Nov. 6 on her 18th birthday, but was told her name was not on the books.

“I was upset,” she said.

Reine said she was not allowed inside a voting booth, but instead was given a provisional ballot that included the presidential election but no local issues.

“I would have voted no,” she said when one of Teachworth’s attorneys, Patrick Hand III, asked how she would have voted on the Crescent City Connection matter.

Marisa Escudero, of New Orleans, testified she registered to vote Sept. 14 at a state Department of Motor Vehicles office, but was told Nov. 6 there was no record of her registering to vote.

“I wanted to go into a booth like every other American citizen and vote on everything,” she said. Instead, Escudero was given a provisional ballot that only included federal elections.

Reine and Escudero were two of six witnesses who testified they were given provisional ballots that excluded the bridge toll election.

All six said they would have voted against renewing the tolls.

Louisiana Commissioner of Elections Angie Rogers testified the state can only put federal elections on provisional ballots.

“It doesn’t say you can’t include state issues on that provisional ballot,” Patrick Hand Jr., who also represents Teachworth, said to Rogers. Patrick Hand Jr. is Patrick Hand III’s father.

The suit claims more than 1,600 voters in Orleans and Jefferson parishes were given provisional ballots and that nearly 1,100 of those voters were in their rightful precincts.

Earl Schmitt, who was working as a poll commissioner in Algiers Point on Nov. 6, said eight provisional ballots were given out at his precinct — Ward 15, Precinct 2. Schmitt said he tried to reach the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Office on election day with regard to those eight voters, but he couldn’t get through.

“You’d call and it would just ring and ring and ring,” he testified, adding that he could not reach the Secretary of State’s Office either.

Only registered voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes could vote in the Crescent City Connection election.

John Lomasney, of New Orleans, testified Monday he voted against the tolls, but not before a female election worker in eastern New Orleans told him in a loud voice that his property taxes would increase if he did not vote for the tolls.

Lomasney later reported the incident to the Secretary of State’s Office, which notified him that his complaint was forwarded to the Orleans Parish Board of Election Supervisors.

Morvant last month ordered a recount of the absentee and early voting ballots cast by New Orleans voters in the bridge toll referendum, but the recount increased the margin of victory for the fees from 18 votes to 36 votes.

Stop the Tolls opposed the toll renewal because of claims that the fee represents an unfair tax that is primarily
levied on West Bank residents. The group also complained about waste and abuse with the roughly $22 million generated from the tolls.

Supporters call the tolls essential to the maintenance and improvement of the bridge and West Bank Expressway.

The tolls bring in $21 million a year.