Final tally on toll vote awaits mail-in ballots

After months of debate and one wild night of vote counting, proponents and opponents of the Crescent City Connection tolls will have to hunker down and wait to truly find out whether the fees on the bridge will continue.

Although unofficial election results had the renewal of the tolls passing by the slimmest of margins — eight votes — the reality is that the Louisiana Secretary of State will not certify those results until next week. In addition, election officials must still count thousands of ballots from military members stationed out of the state, said State Rep. Patrick Connick, a strident opponent of the renewal. It’s unclear how many of those service members live in Orleans, Jefferson Parish or Plaquemines parishes and would have voted on the tolls.

Orleans Parish Clerk of Criminal Court Arthur Morrell, who serves as chief election officer of the parish, said the last military and overseas ballots for New Orleans were due at 8 p.m. Wednesday. Any ballots delivered after that deadline, extended because of Hurricane Sandy, will not be included in the count that officials will conduct Saturday in an effort to determine a final tally in the city.

Connick, however, said he understood that election officials ultimately must wade through about 3,000 military absentee ballots and that the results for the election might not be certified until Nov. 17.

Unofficial results show that 154,373 voters elected to renew the tolls, while 154,365 votes were cast to end them.

Election night featured huge emotional swings for Connick, who saw the toll renewal appear destined for defeat before waking up to a totally different outcome.

“It was a roller coaster,” Connick admitted.

Part of that roller-coaster factor was due to late numbers from Orleans Parish, a majority of whose voters elected to renew the tolls. Those figures came in later because of more than 26,000 early votes that had to be counted, the largest number of early votes ever cast in the city, Morrell said. That batch began to be counted at 1 p.m. Tuesday, which is the earliest they could be counted, but was not completed until early Wednesday morning because of a new process that was actually designed to speed up the tallying.

Despite the logjam in his office, Morrell said he was happy with the results. “For this election, the biggest we ever had, we think we did very well,” he said.

Connick said that given the tight margin, he’s been inundated with calls from residents expressing their dismay and discussing their plans to seek a recount depending on the certified results. He said he wasn’t surprised by the tight outcome given the stakes of the campaign, and he thinks residents just want to make sure things were done right.

“It was a battle,” said Connick, who has lambasted the tolls for weeks are engines of waste and abuse. “We have all the faith in the machines, it was the human error we’re worried about.”

Gretna Mayor Ronnie Harris, one of the first politicians to publicly support the tolls, said he has a lot of confidence in the vote counting done by local and state officials. Like Connick, Harris wasn’t surprised that the race was so tight, or that it still isn’t decided. He said residents were clearly engaged, the issue was obviously divisive and now the process must be followed.

“The interest was certainly there,” said Harris, who acknowledged he was shocked when he saw the 800 vote swing announced on Wednesday morning.

Harris said he thinks residents heard the message of local politicians and business leaders that the bridge was crucial to the area’s safety and economic development. While delays in getting the final tally are par for the course, Harris said he hopes no one tries to drag things out due to spite.

“Once the vote is counted, it is what it is,” Harris said.

For months, politicians, business leaders and regular citizens have staked out sides in the toll battle. At stake was whether drivers would continue to pay $1 cash or a 40-cent toll for the next 20 years. Opponents blasted the fee as unfair, while proponents said it was important to maintaining the area’s progress.

State officials reiterated on Wednesday that regardless of the election outcome, they are forging ahead with plans to fold the Crescent City Connection Police Department into the Department of Public Safety and have the Louisiana State Police assume oversight of the agency. To that end, Crescent City Connection police will be undergoing training from Nov. 13 to 16, and state police will handle patrols on the bridge staring on Monday. Although state police will handle the bridge and the West Bank Expressway, they will not provide security at ferry landings. That will be handled by local police agencies, said Bambi Hall, a spokeswoman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.