Bridge tolls might have been removed if 1,450 provisional ballots included the issue. Credit: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Tuesday’s court ruling nullifying a referendum that renewed tolls on the Crescent City Connection was based on an issue first raised by The Lens, just after election officials certified the razor-thin November outcome.

The judge has called for a new election on the issue, scheduled for May.

Toll opponents who filed the lawsuit  have credited The Lens with revealing the full extent to which voters were disenfranchised. The ballot item allowing voters to choose whether to renew the $1 toll for 20 years was omitted from provisional ballots handed to voters when poll attendants had questions about whether they were voting at the correct precinct on Nov. 6.

The Lens was “the first one who printed it [the provisional ballot issue],” said state Rep. Pat Connick, R-Marrero, the best-known toll opponent. “You were at the forefront for getting the story out.”

Added Mike Teachworth, who heads Stop the Tolls, the group that filed the lawsuit: “If anything, your article heightened the awareness. I don’t think a lot of people understood the provisional ballot issue.”

The Lens reported on Nov. 14 that 1,450 voters in Orleans, Jefferson and Plaquemines parishes cast provisional ballots – ballots that allowed them to vote for president and Congress but not in state and local races, including the bridge toll question.

As The Lens reported, provisional ballots were created by a 2002 federal law  and
a 2003 state law, but the disenfranchisement problem had never arisen. The Lens’ report made provisional ballots a central issue since voters on Nov. 6 renewed the bridge tolls by a margin of only 36 votes.

Two days before The Lens’ report, Connick had asked the Orleans Parish Clerk of Courts for the total number of votes in several categories: early walk-in and mail-in ballots, early mail-in ballots that were counted, early mail-in ballots that were disqualified, and provisional ballots. The Lens’ article provided the numbers not only for Orleans but Jefferson and Plaquemines as well.

State District Court Judge William Morvant cited “a substantial number of irregularities” in ruling Tuesday that many voters given provisional ballots were actually in the correct precinct and should have been allowed to vote on whether to renew the bridge toll.

Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for Secretary of State Tom Schedler, said her office is studying whether to ask the Legislature to allow voters given provisional ballots to vote in state and local elections as well. The legislative session begins on April 8.

Casper said the biggest challenge is logistical. Different precincts,  even in the same city or town, may have different ballots. For example, voters in some New Orleans precincts chose among candidates for one state Senate or state House race while voters in other precincts are in different legislative districts.

So the question becomes: How many races would the citizen vote in to be sure he or she votes in the correct ones? Should officials allow all residents of New Orleans, for example, to vote in every district election and then toss out results of the extraneous ballot questions after determining the voter’s correct precinct?

Even doing that might not cover all voters.

“We get people all the time who go to the wrong parish to vote,” Casper said.

State Rep. Tim Burns, R-Mandeville, who chairs the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, which oversees election law, said he thought allowing provisional ballots in state and local races would be “too unwieldy,” for the reasons Casper cited. “I don’t see how it could be workable,” Burns said.

The Lens looked at the provisional ballot question after a colleague in the newsroom we share with WVUE-TV made an off-hand comment. The television reporter said that when he and his wife went to vote, she was on the voting rolls while he wasn’t. He got a provisional ballot. Several days later, he was still wondering why she got to vote on the bridge toll question and he didn’t.

Judge Morvant called a new bridge toll election for May 4. Voters will not be allowed to vote with provisional ballots since no federal elections will be  on the ballot, said Dennis DiMarco, the Jefferson Parish registrar of voters.

“It’s an ironic situation,” DiMarco said.

Tyler Bridges

Tyler Bridges covers Louisiana politics and public policy for The Lens. He returned to New Orleans in 2012 after spending the previous year as a Nieman Fellow at Harvard, where he studied digital journalism....