SADOW: Tricky Decisions For St. George Organizers

There’s a lot of timing involved in politics, as illustrated in the decision by backers of creating a municipality in east and south East Baton Rouge Parish on when to launch a referendum to determine whether it will be born.

Organizers to found the city, St. George, assert they have already enough signatures as qualified under law to call such an election. As there is no time limit to gathering these, except that if the verification process, that could take as long as a month, finds them short then they have 60 days to try to hit the mark of one-quarter of registered voters in the area, there is discretion as to when to have the election, subject to the parameters of calling special elections.

As the goal is to assume that around one out of every eight signatures is not valid, the organizers wish to have at least 20,000 signatures on hand to turn in and start the verification process. Given their announced total is about 1,500 short, there’s no opportunity for the election to occur this year. The next available opportunity at present appears to be the first Saturday in April, Apr. 4, which is set aside for local elections. That would mean that, given the couple of weeks prior to that date the Secretary of State is to have a certified petition to put on a ballot, signatures would have to be turned in to the East Baton Rouge Registrar of Voters in the last week of February. To be very assured that the verification can get done, the end of January might be the optimal time.

It’s possible that this election could happen before then. For example, partisan election outcomes in November and December may cause vacancies in one or more offices around the parish, and the various authorities involved governing these may schedule special elections earlier than Apr. 4, particularly if they involve for membership in the Legislature as to wait on a new member otherwise may not get them seated prior to the beginning of the 2015 session. Organizers could try to piggyback the measure’s balloting off of such an event.

A debate rages about whether having other items, particularly partisan contests, also on the ballot concurrently with this measure will enhance its chances of passage. Some argue that, as elections concerning ballot items draw the fewest voters and thereby parse out casual voters, those people with the most direct connection to government in adopting the measure, such as someone who signed a petition, disproportionately turn out to vote, and favorably, in those kinds of contests. This is why local governments very often put tax measures aimed at funding the activities of a specific constituency within it on dates where these can stand alone, hoping that the employees affected and their family members comprise a larger-than-typical slice of the turnout and assume they favor these.

But that’s not a given with this issue, because opponents to it are just as passionate, if not more so, about it. To a great degree, opposition to it has taken on a quasi-religious tone, where churlish, if not patently ridiculous or even sacrilegious cries abound that those who support St. George formation act immorally. With fanatics such as these against it, there’s a real question about whether supporters would enjoy a structural advantage the fewer items, especially those involving a partisan contest, that are on the ballot.

Organizers also must understand that they can’t wait for the perfect moment that maximizes chances of success at the ballot box. At any time the Legislature could change the rules, as an attempt last session highlighted, to effect defeat for formation. Or local governments could try tactics to strangle the effort in the crib, as Baton Rouge has started to try to do through annexation of land that either can make some voters ineligible to participate or to degrade the financial position of the incipient city as a means to discourage support, or both. The longer they wait after they feel sure they have enough valid signatures to present them, the more time remains available for mischief of this nature to occur.

Therefore, the organizers’ best chance does appear to be the Apr. 4 date. It’s possible that no partisan contest, or even any other item, may be on the ballot. And while passionate opposition may exist, that seems to be centered more outside of the proposed boundaries. Prior to the election they might kick up a fuss against it, but they will be ineligible to vote against it while fervent supporters who are precisely that because they live in the area will be able to and will mobilize themselves to turn out to address a sparse ballot. Waiting any longer risks increased opportunity for other governments to deploy countermeasures and erodes the validity of signatures; for example, some will have been put there by people over a year ago that have long moved out of the area, and the longer time passes, the more that will become invalid.

Whatever the decision turns out to be, it could end up being the difference between success and failure.

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