On the Ballot

Stephanie Grace: There’s more on ballot than presidential race. Study up if you’re voting early.

By Stephanie Grace

Source: The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

October 17, 2020

Even as it’s grown in popularity, I’ve never felt compelled to participate in early voting.

I enjoy the ritual of walking to my local polling place, seeing neighbors and greeting the commissioners who show up year after year to check us in. I like voting on Election Day itself, because it feels like I’m part of something big and important and exciting. I even appreciate all the last-minute mail and polling calls — something more sophisticated campaigns sometimes cut off for early voters — because a campaign’s end is often when things get interesting.

Like everything else, though, voting this year is different.

COVID-19 concerns will clearly keep many at-risk voters at home, including, I expect, the elderly poll commissioners who usually staff my precinct. Indeed, despite the best efforts by legislative Republicans — not to mention, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Attorney General Jeff Landry — to severely curtail the conditions under which Louisianans can vote by mail, all evidence is that the practice is hugely popular this year, particularly among the 65-and-older set that’s eligible even when there’s no pandemic. Absentee voters are likely to fill out their ballots early, too, given concern over the postal slowdown on the Trump administration’s watch.

In-person early voting started Friday and runs through Oct. 27, and long lines on the first morning support projections that this too will shatter records.

Why wouldn’t it? At the top of the ballot is a presidential race from hell, one that has left few voters in the undecided or even lukewarm categories. A lot of people I hear from either can’t wait to make their voices heard, or can’t wait for the whole thing to be over — or both. I’m right there with them, and considering breaking from my usual tradition and voting early this time around.

There’s a “but,” though, and it’s that the presidential race is only the tip of a big electoral iceberg.

This year’s ballots are filled with regional and local contests around the state. These include not only major contests such as the open district attorney contest in Orleans Parish, the mayor’s race in Baton Rouge and a contest to replace retiring U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham in the 5th Congressional District. Also up for grabs are a slew of judgeships including two state Supreme Court seats, plus seven constitutional amendments and a local option question in every parish on whether to legalize sports betting (details to be determined by the Legislature at a future date).

It’s a lot to try process even without restrictions on campaigning due to COVID-19 and the massive distraction that is President Donald Trump. And the types of contests and questions on this particular ballot are among the most challenging for voters who don’t go to court and see what judges do in person, or who don’t follow the ins-and-outs of the state government.

Yet there are some important things at stake around the ballot. Orleans voters’ choice of a new DA to replace Leon Cannizzaro will determine to what extent the office adopts progressive reforms happening around the country. Several statewide ballot questions will affect the taxes localities can collect, which obviously impacts the relative burden on others as well as the jurisdictions’ bottom lines. Amendment #1 addresses the hot-button topic of legalized abortion; a “yes” vote to declare that nothing in the state Constitution should be interpreted as supporting abortion rights probably wouldn’t make much practical difference should Roe v. Wade fall — Louisiana already has an anti-abortion trigger law on the books — but the results would make a loud statement about reproductive rights.

Even minor-sounding questions could have a big impact. Jefferson Parish voters, for example, are being asked to renew a millage that supports the Inspector General’s Office. They should know that the tax provides all the office’s revenue, so a “no” vote could basically put the government watchdog out of business.

There are resources to help voters understand the ballot questions from groups such at the Council for a Better Louisiana and the Public Affairs Research Council, and in the case of the Jefferson question, the Bureau of Governmental Research. Here, as well as for judge and other local races, the best advice I have is to seek out people who know the subject matter and ask their advice, or find groups that share your philosophy and read up on their recommendations.

If you’re early voting, maybe even plan to study up while waiting in line. The way things are shaping up, you’ll have plenty of time.

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