Toll renewal confirmed

Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER --  Military and overseas ballots cast in the Nov. 6 election are counted at City Hall on Tuesday to determine whether a toll renewal  on the Crescent City Connection passed. Betsy Stoner, left, of the Orleans Parish Board of Election Supervisors executive administrator, passes out ballots to be counted by the board. Show caption
Advocate staff photo by JOHN McCUSKER -- Military and overseas ballots cast in the Nov. 6 election are counted at City Hall on Tuesday to determine whether a toll renewal on the Crescent City Connection passed. Betsy Stoner, left, of the Orleans Parish Board of Election Supervisors executive administrator, passes out ballots to be counted by the board.

Final count ups margin to 16 votes

A review of 20 more absentee ballots on Tuesday only increased the margin of victory for the renewal of the Crescent City Connection tolls, but while most officials are ready to move forward with the fees, some residents are still itching for a fight.

In a crowded City Hall conference room, the Orleans Parish Board of Supervisors for Elections hand-counted 32 additional absentee ballots cast by military members stationed as far away as South Africa and Rome.

The ballots represented the last chance for toll opponents to defeat the renewal, which had been holding on to a slim eight-vote lead after last Tuesday’s election, and the counting of similar ballots in Jefferson and Plaquemines Parishes.

Election officials only tallied votes from 20 of the absentee ballots because the remaining dozen did not include a vote on the toll renewal.

In the end, there were 14 ballots favoring the renewal and six opposing it. That increased the total margin of victory for the renewal to 16 votes.

While that might seem like a razor-thin margin, Orleans Parish Clerk of Court Arthur Morrell said he’s seen smaller. Morrell noted that the review process, which included multiple officials inspecting each ballot, is particularly important in an election this tight.

“Because of elections like this, where it’s close, you can’t take a chance on something being missed,” he said. The Orleans Parish results should be certified by tomorrow and then sent to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s Office

In the end, more than 308,000 votes were cast on the toll renewal, with voters in Jefferson and Plaquemines Parish opposing the measure and New Orleans voters supporting it. Voters on the West Bank of all three parishes overwhelmingly opposed the fee, which is $1 cash, and 40 cents for toll tag users. The tolls bring in about $21 million annually and will continue for the next two decades.

Jefferson Chamber of Commerce President Todd Murphy said that with the renewal finally upheld, officials can shift their focus to making certain that the road projects promised by toll supporters come to fruition. That includes improvements to the Manhattan Boulevard and Barataria Boulevard ramps and the Harvey tunnel. Murphy’s group was one of several high-profile business groups that joined with many local politicians and law enforcement officials in support of the tolls, citing their impact on economic development, security and safety.

He said one of the themes on both sides of the protracted battle was the need for more accountability.

Toll proponents now have a responsibility to be just as vocal advocating for accountability as they were in support of the tolls, he said.

“Getting the tolls passed was step one. Step two is making sure the money is spent right,” said Murphy, who expressed confidence in the power of the Regional Planning Commission, despite the fact that it only has an advisory role. “We’re going to make sure that there is enough teeth in that.”

Jefferson Parish President John Young, a toll opponent and planning commission member, agreed that it’s time to move forward, although he was more skeptical about how much of a difference the planning commission can make. Young maintained his position that the tolls are an “unfair tax” but noted that in elections there are always winners and losers. Now is the time to seek common ground and make sure projects are completed, he said.

“We respect the democratic process; the people have spoken,” Young said. “Everyone has to work together, the toll proponents and the toll opponents, to make sure what happened in the past doesn’t happen again.”

But some residents aren’t quite ready to accept the election’s results, at least not according to the deluge of emails that flooded state Rep. Patrick Connick’s office after the results were announced. Residents expressed a complete mistrust in how votes were counted in New Orleans, particularly with the last-minute discovery of several thousand paper ballots early Wednesday. Rob Vidacovich, a Harvey resident, said he’s trying to join with like-minded residents to pursue an election challenge because he thinks it’s the only fair way to proceed.

“If I can figure out how to personally pursue it, I will,” he said.

Connick said he thinks it makes sense to examine all the ballots that were counted by hand. He sent a letter to Morrell on Monday requesting several tallies from early voting. Connick said ultimately the election reaffirms the importance of the democratic process, and because of that importance, he thinks officials should be absolutely certain that all votes were counted properly.

“Because it’s so close and the ramifications are so high, I think both sides would want to reconsider the hand-counted ballots,” Connick said. “The folks that I represent, and that’s a lot of West Bankers, this leaves a bad taste in their mouths.”

Louisiana law only allows for recounts of absentee and early voting ballots. Recounts can be initiated through court challenges or through challenges by participants in a race.