Dardenne takes on The Gray Lady

by Nathan Stubbs

A New York Times article Secretary of State Jay Dardenne labels ‘irresponsible’ is drawing more scrutiny to the state’s cancellation of some 25,000 voters earlier this year. An irresponsible piece of journalism with numerous inaccuracies and erroneous inferences. That’s how Republican Secretary of State Jay Dardenne describes a recent New York Times article headlined “States’ Actions to Block Voters Appear Illegal.” The article in the national newspaper of record, which mainly focuses on six other states’ practices for screening and trimming their voter rolls, charges this year “Louisiana appears to have removed thousands of voters after the federal deadline for taking such action.” The story goes on to note that, when asked about the recent voter cancellations, a spokesman for Dardenne said approximately 11,000 Louisiana voters were taken off the rolls by local officials for reasons that were not clear.

According to Dardenne, the reasons were made “crystal clear” to The New York Times’ reporter, who ignored much of the information provided by his office. Dardenne detailed his criticisms in a recent letter to New York Times editor Suzanne Daley. His office also points out that two other states have logged complaints with the article through the National Association of Secretaries of State.

Nevertheless, the story has stoked concerns in the politically charged weeks leading up to a major national election and has prompted inquiries into the voter cancellations from at least two organizations in Louisiana. The same issue is cropping up in other states as well. Both Georgia and Colorado are currently facing lawsuits regarding similar voter purges.

Last week, the state Democratic Party and New Orleans civil rights group The Louisiana Justice Institute both obtained lists of the names of recently canceled voters from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office and have been checking to see if any voters were removed inappropriately. “When the Secretary of State’s office says that 11,000 Louisiana voters were removed from the voting rolls for reasons ‘that were not clear,’ that’s cause for serious concern,” says State Democratic Party spokesman Scott Jordan. “The Louisiana Democratic Party is reviewing and investigating the situation, as there are many unanswered questions regarding this voter purge.” Jordan also says that, based on an initial review, there appears to be approximately three times as many Democrats and independents as Republicans on the list of recently canceled voters.

The voter purge in question involves 25,165 names removed from the rolls between July 23 and Aug. 27. According to Dardenne, these voters were canceled based on the state’s 21-day challenge law, which predates his election as secretary of state. The law directs registrars of voters to challenge voters whose registration is suspect for any reason other than a change of address. The reasons include voters who may have died, been convicted of a felony, moved or have incorrect information on their voter application. The registrar sends out a notice to the voter who then has 21 days to prove he or she is in compliance with the law.

The New York Times story alleges Louisiana violated a deadline in the National Voter Registration Act, which states, “A State shall complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.”

Louisiana’s cancellations came within 90 days of the Oct. 4 federal primary election for congressional races. However, the law also goes on to say that it should not be construed to preclude states from cancelling voters for reasons of death, conviction of a felony, or mental health reasons. It also does not preclude states from “correction of registration records.”

The “correction” exception is what appears to be at issue. In his letter to The New York Times, Dardenne, an attorney by trade, claims that it’s legal for the state to cancel voters for other reasons within the deadline if it is a part of routine “database maintenance” which registrars are directed to do by both state and federal law. These cancelations generally result from voter registrations that are checked against a state ID database and found to have inaccurate information. Dardenne argues that the NVRA’s 90-day deadline is mainly set up for inactive voter cancellations, which the state conducts every two years in the month of December — well in advance of any federal election.

Dardenne’s press secretary, Jacques Berry, says he explained this very all clearly to New York Times reporter Ian Urbina and gave him tallied numbers of the canceled voters.

“It really is unbelievable,” Berry says. “It’s funny, because I was telling [Urbina] all this data, and he was disputing it as I was reading it off my computer screen to him. And then, he went and just talked about how we’re breaking the law.”

Catherine Mathis, vice president of corporate communications for The New York Times, says the paper stands by its story. She says the story uses a more conservative estimate of cancelled voters than Dardenne’s office. The article reports, “In Louisiana, at least 18,000 people were dropped from the rolls in the five weeks after July 23. Over the same period, at least 1,600 people moved out of state and at least 3,300 died. In an e-mailed response to questions from The Independent Weekly, Mathis writes: “We consulted with multiple law professors and voting rights experts and all agreed with our understanding on the federal prohibition of removing voters from the rolls [except for cases of people who have died, moved or been declared unfit to vote for legal or mental health reasons].”

Mathis maintains that the specifics for why 11,000 or so voters were removed in Louisiana remains unclear. “That is from a tape-recorded interview with the spokesman from the Secretary of State’s office who said those folks may have been removed for any number of reasons, and he listed several possible examples, but he also said that it was unclear at that moment how many voters corresponded to each of seven or eight different reasons.”

Berry, who was a reporter for three years before taking his current job, says that detailing how many voters were canceled for each reason would have required him going through each record individually to tally the numbers. He adds that the newspaper’s reporter seemed to have been provided bad information about Louisiana’s canceled voters by a voting rights organization such as ACORN, which is now the focus of an FBI investigation involving alleged voter registration fraud. “It’s almost like they spoon-feed him,” Berry says. “I wish I had reporters who would listen to me like that.” Berry says he encouraged the reporter to contact Bill Bryan, the state’s assistant attorney general who advises registrars of voters, for clarification on the law, which the reporter apparently did not do.

“It’s kind of par for the course for The New York Times these days,” Berry says. “They’ve had so many credibility problems lately just because of reporters like him. There’s no excuse for that.”

Dardenne also wrote a letter to the state Democratic Party in response to its inquiry into the voter cancellations. “The referenced article by Ian Urbina contains numerous inaccuracies and erroneous inferences about the cancellation of voters in a number of states, including Louisiana,” Dardenne writes, also pointing out that “Louisiana has added 180,387 voters to its rolls since January 1, 2008, one of the heaviest registration periods in state history.” In closing the three-page letter, Dardenne writes: “I hope you will conclude from this response that a law suit is neither necessary nor appropriate.”

Dardenne was scheduled to address the issue of roll purging at a special meeting of the state Legislature’s Committee on House and Governmental Affairs on Tuesday, Oct. 28, after The Independent Weekly’s press time. “I think it’s safe to say that [the meeting] was called in response to this [New York Times] story,” Berry says. “We’re trying to explain it to everybody anyway, and this gives us a chance to do it all at once.”