In 1997, Louisiana became one of the first states to require voters to show a photo ID at their polling stations. The measure also allowed voters who didn’t have a photo ID to sign an affidavit attesting to their identity.
That law helps explain why Louisiana seems unlikely to see much immediate effect from a Supreme Court ruling Tuesday that overturned a key component of a1965 law meant to prevent discrimination against black voters, principally in Southern states.
Pushed by conservatives, legislatures in several states in recent years have passed laws requiring voters to present photo IDs but without the option of signing an affidavit if they didn’t have one. The 1965 law kept those laws from taking effect because they had not been blessed by the U.S. Justice Department.
Officials in Texas and Mississippi said in the immediate aftermath of Tuesday’s ruling that they plan to implement already-approved controversial photo ID laws that critics say will discourage voting by poor African-Americans.
But in Louisiana, the chairmen of the two legislative committees that write the state’s election laws said they have heard no complaints about Louisiana’s photo ID requirement.
Voters in Louisiana can present a driver’s license, a passport, a military ID or a Louisiana identification card.
“The issue has never come up from Democrats wanting to make it less restrictive and Republicans wanting to make it more restrictive,” said state Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, chariman of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, in a comment echoed by state Sen. Jody Amedee, R-Gonzalez, his Senate counterpart.
Secretary of State Tom Schedler, who oversees the state’s election laws, in an interview Thursday said he would “vigorously oppose” any efforts to remove the affidavit option.
“We really don’t hear any complaints about it,” Schedler said.
Schedler’s predecessor, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, also said in an interview that he would oppose any efforts to eliminate the affidavit option.
“Louisiana’s photo ID law has been a model for the rest of the nation,” he said.
Yet to weigh in, however, is Gov. Bobby Jindal, who has sought the Legislature’s approval of several measures in the past two years that have played well with conservatives across the country. Two requests for comment to Jindal’s press staff Thursday went unanswered.
African-American political leaders throughout Louisiana have decried the Supreme Court’s decision.
State Rep. Katrina Jackson, D-Monroe, who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, called it “a major blow for voter rights in Louisiana.”
State Sen. Edwin Murray, D-New Orleans, said he feared that the absence of the Justice Department will prompt elected officials in Louisiana to pass laws making it harder for African-Americans to vote and win election to office.
The 1965 law was so far-reaching that local and state election officials in Louisiana had to get the Justice Department’s approval to move a voting precinct or change voting hours.
“Moving a polling booth from a black neighborhood to a white one could affect the outcome of an election,” said Ron Wilson, a New Orleans attorney who has sued governments on behalf of the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
Besides any attempt to restrict the photo ID law, Louisiana state officials don’t expect any fights over Louisiana’s voting laws until the Legislature, parish and city governments redraw their voting boundaries following the 2020 census.
“Over 95 percent of governmental bodies have already gotten pre-clearance” from the Justice Department following the 2010 census, said Cedric Floyd, a Jefferson Parish School Board member who works as a consultant to public bodies that redraw district boundaries. Floyd said that the towns of Winnsboro, St. Martinville and Franklin just won Justice Department pre-clearance in June – a practice that no longer will be required.
The first direct effect of the Supreme Court’s ruling in Louisiana will come in October when West Feliciana Parish voters elect a new council president.
West Feliciana residents voted in November to switch from a police jury to a council form of government featuring a parish president. But that change had yet to take effect because the Justice Department had yet to approve. But now West Feliciana can proceed with the change from a seven-member police jury to a five-member parish council, with four of the members elected from districts and one at-large, said Jerry N. Jones, a Baton Rouge attorney hired by the parish.
Another parish now freed to move forward with a change in its voting system is Iberville, which is just west of Baton Rouge. The state Legislature reduced the number of school board members in Iberville from 15 to nine, with one of the nine serving at-large.
“But the law was never pre-cleared,” said Glenn Koepp, the Secretary of the Senate who handled the case in his dual capacity as a private attorney. But when the school board next holds its elections, in 2014, voters will now elect a nine-member board.
“I have no problem with that,” said Melvin Lodge, who is the school board’s president. He said he expects whites and blacks each to hold four of the seats in a parish that has just about equal numbers of white and black voters.
Schedler said the 1965 voting law was needed because, “Louisiana had a very checkered past. In 1965, he said, 80 percent of whites were registered to vote while only 31 percent of blacks were.”
In the 2012 election, Schedler said, 69 percent of whites voted versus 67 percent of blacks. He added that the state now has 1,300 black elected officials at all levels.
“Louisiana is not even close to where we were in 1965,” he said.
Schedler added that he has detected no fraud in Louisiana’s voting system. He said the Secretary of State’s fraud unit audited all the affidavits of voters in 50 parishes – 23 per parish on average – following the 2008 election. “We found not one questionable affidavit,” he said. “It proves we don’t have anybody committing fraud.”
That was the purpose of the 1997 law, said its sponsor, Charles Emile “Peppi” Bruneau, Jr., a long-time Republican state representative from New Orleans. It was meant, he said, “to prevent voter fraud, white or black, which was prevalent in both communities.”