WASHINGTON — After Democrats and Republicans debated alleged voter suppression laws on Monday, Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler said the state settled its fight on the issue 15 years ago.
Speaking at The Pew Center on the State’s conference, “Voting in America 2012: Looking Back, Looking Forward” in Washington, Schedler surprised much of the national audience by pointing out that Louisiana has required a photo identification to vote since 1997.
“We have an affidavit,” Schedler said, noting that Louisianians can still vote without photo evidence by swearing to their residency. “It’s never been (legally) challenged.”
Many of the issues debated at the conference included the motivations behind voter identification laws, the long waits in line to vote on Nov. 6, allegations of voter intimidation, ballot shortages at polling places and the lack of adequate pay and training for part-time election officials.
“The good thing is people voted,” said Eric Marshall, co-leader of Election Protection, which is the nation’s largest voter support coalition.
The problem is that many voters were still waiting in long lines even after the election was declared for President Barack Obama, Marshall said. And, many confused voters in states like Pennsylvania had no clue whether they needed an identification card to vote, he said.
Jeremy Bird, the national field director for Obama for America, said he took such proposed laws as “deeply personal,” especially in a state like Pennsylvania that approved a voter ID law just months before the election, only to see it overturned in court.
“They’re blatant, partisan attempts to change the laws of the elections, oftentimes, very close to the election,” Bird said, arguing that Democrats could support such laws if they were approved well in advance and that ID cards were made available for free in the mail or with limited transportation issues.
Critics, like Bird, have alleged that such laws amount to “poll taxes” on the poor and minorities, who often do not drive and have limited incomes.
Scott Tranter, the founder of Vlytics, a data and technology consulting firm in Washington, disagreed. “We’d like to make voting easier while maintaining the integrity of the vote,” Tranter said.
He blamed the biggest problems on a lack of employee training and adequate pay for the long lines and the disenfranchised voters. “It’s the unprepared election officials,” he said.
Schedler said Louisiana is improving voter turnout — nearly 10 percentage points above the national average in November — and cutting down on costs, while avoiding any major controversies.
Louisiana has significantly cut down on the number of elections it has each year, he said, primarily by eliminating special elections for state legislators.
“We were not only high, we were double,” Schedler said of the amount of elections the state was holding compared to the next highest states just two years ago. “Now, we’re at least down at the top of the pack.”
While some parts of Arizona, for instance, have two-thirds of their registered voters turning in ballots early by mail, Schedler said he thinks Louisiana is best off sticking to a combination of mostly in-person early voting and in-person election day voting.
Relying too much on mail-in ballots — with the exception of critical absentee voting — opens the door for more fraud because it is easier to tamper with paper ballots, Schedler said.
Early voting was up 21 percent last month in Louisiana from 2008, but that also brought longer lines and waits of up to about 90 minutes or so. But Schedler said he is hesitant to extend early voting much more than the two weeks before the election because of the associated costs.
“It’s like gearing up for the 300-year storm; you can’t afford it,” Schedler said. “Do we get complaints? Absolutely. Do we get many? No.”
Beefing up the infrastructure and adding voting hours just for the presidential election every four years is financially wasteful, he said, because
it only applies every four years.
However, Louisiana was just the second state to adopt online voter registration, Schedler noted, and one of the first to get a mobile phone “app” that provides individual polling data and sample ballots.