by Erica Woebse
In a state of four million people and two million registered voters, Louisiana lists a staggering 190,848 registered voters on the state’s inactive voter list. Called “notably high” by Times-Picayune Reporter Bruce Alpert, this number has sparked controversy and left residents wondering how and why almost ten percent of Louisiana registered voters are classified as inactive.
Karen Carter Peterson of the Louisiana Democratic Party fears people are being stripped of their right to vote without adequate notice. This fear echoes a larger national controversy regarding voter ID laws and the right to vote. While Republicans allege new voter ID laws protect the integrity of elections and root out voter fraud, Democrats claim new laws, which require voters to show state issued IDs and purge inactive voters from election polls, are intended to discourage minorities and low income individuals from voting.
In Louisiana, voters are removed from the voter registration list if they do not confirm their listed address, and do not vote in an election between the time their name is added to the inactive list and the day after the second regularly scheduled federal general election. Democrats argue that stricter voter ID laws and a lack of notice concerning one’s inactive status leads to the disenfranchisement of poor and minority residents of Louisiana.
Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler has been quick to defend the inactive voter list, reminding critics that Louisiana’s policy complies with both state and federal law. He argues that residents receive adequate notice of their inactive status: two postcards notifying voters of their inactive classification are mailed to their listed addresses. In addition, an online database names all voters currently listed as inactive. Those incorrectly labeled can correct their status by filling out an online form or calling a 1-800 number. As a built-in safeguard, those incorrectly labeled as inactive voters can still vote on election day if they are able to provide documentation verifying their original listed address.
State officials also assert that Louisiana has fairly lenient voter ID laws. Voters without an official state ID are still permitted to vote if they can correctly answer security questions, like their mother’s maiden name, and are willing to sign an affidavit verifying their identity.
So if Louisiana has lenient voter ID laws and makes it easy for people to get off of the inactive voter list, why are almost 10% of registered voters currently listed as inactive?
One possible answer is that Louisiana is still suffering in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. According to a 2010 census, New Orleans lost 140,845 residents after the hurricane. While many residents have slowly returned to their original homes or home parishes, entire sections of New Orleans remain blighted. Former residents of these areas are scattered in other parishes, cities, and even states. Thus, many of those misplaced by Katrina are, in fact, inactive voters.
Another explanation is that changes in the notification procedure have resulted in insufficient notice for many residents incorrectly classified as inactive. In 2012, Representative Fannin introduced House Bill 147 into the Louisiana legislature. The bill attempted to repeal a Louisiana law requiring publication of the inactive voter list in an official parish journal 90 days before regularly scheduled federal primary elections. House Bill 147 attempted to eliminate this requirement, allowing for inactive lists to be posted on the internet. Although House Bill 147 was tabled, Republican Senator Jack Donahue added its principal ideas to a budget bill amendment. Amendment 35 of House Bill 1 allows the publication of the inactive voter lists to be “suspended or adjusted for purposes of creating efficiencies and/or savings during the fiscal year 2012-2012.” Consequently, some parishes have used budgetary constraints to justify not publishing inactive voter lists.
As a consequence of Amendment 35, many Louisiana residents are forced to rely on very unreliable post service or the internet to see if they are inactive. As one might imagine, this has disproportionate consequences for Louisiana citizens. According to a national poll in 2010, only four out of ten households with annual incomes below $25,000 had internet access at home. Minorities are also disproportionally effected. Only slightly more than half of African American and Hispanic households have home internet access. While older members of our population are gaining familiarity with the internet, their ability to navigate websites still lags behind that of their younger counterparts. These national problems with equal internet access are exacerbated in Louisiana, where many rural regions only receive a shaky internet connection.
The implications of being classified as inactive are tremendous. Active voters in Louisiana need only bring a state issued ID or answer security questions and sign an affidavit to vote. Inactive voters may not vote unless they are able to show proper documentation at the polling place verifying their residence at their original address. Whether the address is correct or not is determined by the state’s records. It is not difficult to imagine a situation in which a wrongly classified inactive voter is unable to provide the necessary documentation to correct his status.
Although it is unclear exactly why Louisiana has a disproportionate number of voters on the state’s inactive list, it is certain that the large number will have implications for the upcoming election. Stay tuned to see how Louisiana copes with this current issue and what implications it will have come November.