Court agreement lowers threshold for signatures needed to recall Cantrell

By: - March 1, 2023 9:05 pm
A van from the NOLaToya recall effort is parked in front of New Orleans City Hall.

A van from the NOLaToya recall effort is parked in front of New Orleans City Hall. (Greg LaRose/Louisiana Illuminator)

NEW ORLEANS – The signature-count threshold needed to trigger a general election to recall Mayor LaToya Cantrell would be lowered from about 50,000 to about 45,000 in a surprising court settlement reached Wednesday between the recall drive organizers and the Secretary of State’s office.

The details of the settlement were not immediately available, but a spokesman for the Secretary of State’s Office said no voters would be declared inactive or removed from the rolls in the process.

Some observers, including Cantrell herself, have expressed concerns that the recall campaign’s legal challenge was a backdoor strategy to purge New Orleans voters from the rolls. But it appears the deal won’t change anyone’s voter status.

Instead, the secretary of state will simply lower the threshold of the number of signatures the recall petition needs in order to trigger a general recall election. John Tobler, deputy secretary of communications with the Secretary of State’s office, said the threshold will be lowered as if 25,000 people were removed from the list of active New Orleans voters.

But under the terms of the deal, which had not yet been signed by a judge as of mid-afternoon Wednesday, no one will be moved to the inactive voter list, he said.

“No one’s being removed,” Tobler said. “Essentially, the total number of the electorate is going to be reduced by 25,000 … And that was an agreed upon number to sort of make both parties satisfied. But no one is being removed.”

Tobler said that the deal and lower active voter count will only apply to the Cantrell recall petition, not future petitions or elections.

Recall organizers have said they delivered boxes with almost 50,000 signatures to the Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters last week but no official number has so far been released. How the Secretary of State’s Office could unilaterally lower the signature requirement without auditing the rolls was also not clear.

The deal would put to rest concerns that the recall campaign was trying to purge New Orleans voters from the rolls. Cantrell and other recall critics have noted the recall campaign is almost entirely funded by Rick Farrell, a local businessman and prominent Republican donor. And critics have pointed out that lawyers representing the recall campaign have ties to the Louisiana Republican party.

“This is really no longer about recalling me as the mayor,” Cantrell said at a press conference Wednesday morning. “It’s evident that this recall is just not about me. It’s about disenfranchisement of our voters, particularly Black voters in this city.”

Even if the deal had changed the active voter list, it would not have immediately affected anyone’s right to vote. Under state law, inactive voters can still vote on election day or by early or absentee ballot. If they fail to come to the polls for a period of time that includes two regularly scheduled federal elections, they could then be removed from the rolls entirely.

“The mayor knows that an inactive voter can vote,” Eileen Carter, chair of the recall committee, told Verite. “To continue this misinformation and confuse voters shows she’s disingenuous.”

Cantrell’s office declined to comment for this story.

The settlement is the result of a lawsuit that the recall campaign brought against Secretary of State’s Kyle Ardoin and Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson last month. The campaign alleged that the offices had failed in their duties to perform a thorough voter canvass and maintain an accurate count of “active” Orleans Parish voters.

In its suit, the recall campaign argued the office failed to move roughly 33,000 people to the inactive voter list, allegedly including hundreds who have died and thousands who have moved out of state or out of Orleans Parish.

The number of signatures the recall petition needs to trigger an election is 20 percent of the city’s active voters — 49,976 signatures based on the Secretary of State’s data.

The deal reached Wednesday would lower that threshold to 44,976.

The settlement entered into Orleans Parish Civil District Court wasn’t available to Verite at the time this story was published. Attorneys representing the recall campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment. But in a statement released Wednesday, the recall campaign seemed to indicate that the deal would in fact result in voters being moved to the inactive list.

“The voters who will be placed on the inactive list have moved outside of Orleans Parish and have notified the U.S. Post Office of such or have died,” the statement said.

Verite contacted Eileen Carter, the co-chair of the recall committee and lead plaintiff in the suit, but she said she couldn’t confirm the terms of the settlement.

“I’m not getting into those specifics with reporters today, that’s what the attorneys were dealing with,” Carter said. “I have not been authorized to speak to any of the specifics with negotiations.”

Two lawyers representing the recall campaign in the lawsuit did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Recall organizers turned their signatures into Wilson’s office on Feb. 22, claiming they have gathered enough signatures to trigger a recall election. But the campaign has yet to disclose its signature count. The campaign also refused to provide copies of signatures, which are considered public records under state law, in response to requests to The Times-Picayune.

The newspaper sued the campaign last month for the records. And the two sides later reached a settlement, where the recall campaign promised to provide them on Feb. 22. As the deadline approached, however, the recall campaign demanded the newspaper pay $15,000 for the records, though the settlement did not mention copying fees. Late last month, the Times-Picayune asked a judge to hold the campaign in contempt. A contempt hearing was set to be held on Wednesday via videoconference.

This article first appeared on Verite and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.


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Michael Isaac Stein, Verite
Michael Isaac Stein, Verite

Before joining Verite, Michael Isaac Stein spent five years as an investigative reporter at The Lens, a nonprofit New Orleans news publication, covering local government, housing and labor issues. Before working at The Lens, Stein was a reporter for WWNO New Orleans Public Radio and freelanced for various national publications including The Intercept, The New Republic and Bloomberg’s CityLab. He holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan’s Ford School of Public Policy.