Every once-in-awhile what is considered the omnibus elections bill presented each regular session to the Louisiana Legislature contains something significant to the way in which elections are conducted in the state. Most years it only makes technical and procedural changes that significantly alters things little. But this time out, one of these minor changes may have big ramifications to an important special interest that has nothing to do with elections.
Tucked away in this year’s version, which comes as a product of the State Board of Election Supervisors, among the roughly three dozen measures expected to be written into bill form and introduced is one that would drop the requirement that the names of inactive voters – those who have registration addresses not able to be verified by registrars of voters during the annual canvass or whose correspondence sent to the address on file was returned undeliverable – be published 90 days prior to federal primary elections. The purpose of this is every two years for the state to alert these voters that they would have to go through additional hurdles in order to vote unless they provide address verification.
Instead, the state argues that the online listing, where a voter may enter their names to see whether they have been put on inactive status which is never more than a day old, should suffice. It also would save, according to the last available statistics, for all parishes $200,000 in off-election years and $375,000 in presidential election years.
This makes all the sense in the world. How many people scan newspapers in July of even-numbered years to see whether they got put on the inactive list? And if you are one of those very few curious and concerned enough about your status, instead of getting one shot every 730 or 731 days to check a paper copy (or subsequently conduct extensive searches with costs to locate the exact page of paper), you can do it any time by the Internet.
But this sensible proposal will encounter fierce opposition if it makes it into the bill, coming from the major beneficiary of this largesse, the newspaper industry. Over the past few years, legislators have introduced multiple bills to scale back or eliminate the need for state and local governments to publish various kinds of public records, given the advent of nearly zero-cost Internet publishing as opposed to the several millions spent in contracts, to the strenuous opposition of those outlets on the government payroll.
To date, fatuous arguments by the newspaper industry have kept these bills from enactment. Web-based access is far easier – leading to the irony that many papers end up also putting these notices on the web while charging government for printing them, inserting an entirely unnecessary and expensive middleman into the process. And the argument that there is more newspaper access than web access for some of the population has absolutely no currency – if you don’t own a computer or even smart cell phone (and at that level of tight resources, you probably can’t afford today’s inflated newspaper prices, either), isn’t it actually easier to walk into a library and look up something on a public terminal than to head to the microfilm readers to find the issue with the information you want in question?
Newspaper special interests, who lean more and more heavily on these government contracts as that business gets tougher and tougher, will fight this tooth-and-nail to keep the largesse rolling in because this establishes a beachhead to get rid of all such requirements – even though, as they get more reliant on government money, they become more susceptible to losing independence to government. Legislators would be wise to include this provision in the elections bill and to expand it through others to eliminate all of these requirements, not just to save taxpayers money but also to save newspapers from themselves to let them continue as potential independent critics and conveyors of information about government.