UPDATE posted Sept. 5:
MANSFIELD, La. – Fire marshal approval is still pending for occupancy of the new DeSoto Registrar of Voters office; however, Registrar Amanda Raynes has an alternate site ready should one be needed to accommodate early voting that begins Sept. 28.
Raynes said she’s ready to do the early voting process in the DeSoto Parish Library because it’s the only way she believes the number of anticipated early voters can be properly handled, while at the same time ensuring voter privacy. She made the plans anticipating a possible delay in the fire marshal’s OK to move into the new office on Crosby Street.
“But I wholeheartedly and passionately stand by the fact that we cannot serve our voters well in that office,” she said in reference to her current office on Franklin Street. “And I made plans with the Mansfield Library to use their large meeting room. We will be able to address voter privacy, No. 1, and handicapped accessibility.”
Raynes addressed the issue Wednesday during a special Police Jury meeting, which Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin also attended to weigh in on what had become a controversial topic among some of the parish’s public officials. Ardoin said he wasn’t there to tell them what to do but to support Raynes in her decision and answer any questions.
Clerk of Court Jeremy Evans fired off letters to Ardoin last week expressing his opposition to Raynes’ plans to move the office. Evans didn’t attend the special meeting, but attorney Bryce Denny said he was standing in his absence. Denny echoed some of the same complaints aired by Evans in his letters. (See story below)
Ardoin provided an attorney general’s opinion and said input from the state’s legal counsel supports Raynes’ authority to move her office. Stepping in would be a “serious mistake” and create problems by interfering in her duty as a registrar and leader of early voting, he said.
Police jurors Jeri Burrell and Thomas Jones, both of Mansfield, were the most vocal about Raynes’ plans to move. Burrell took credit for being the one who suggest the move in the first place three years ago, but she said the new building is not ready and moving would only confuse early voters.
Burrell and Jones repeatedly asserted their position as owners of the parish buildings and objected to anyone telling them what to do with them or when to grant occupancy.
“You telling us that no matter what we do Amanda got the authority just to override us about our building?” Burrell asked. Raynes responded: “It’s not about your building; it’s about the location for early voting.”
“I just don’t believe that. Ain’t nothing you say gonna make me believe that. A federal appeal need to be done because I do not believe and nothing you say today gonna make me believe Amanda has the authority. Yes, she can move, I have no problem with her moving, move wherever you want to move. Just not in that building, or our building. You don’t have the authority to tell us what to do with our building and you can’t make me believe that,” Burrell said.
Jones said moving was not an emergency. “It’s about rushing something for no reason. We are the governing body and that building is not ready,” said Jones, who said moving now would create “voter suppression and confusion.”
Said Ardoin: ““It’s either that building, the current building or another building, that’s her choice.”
Raynes reviewed problems with her current 300-square foot building. Mostly, the problem is a lack of privacy for early voters.
Only four machines fit inside and voters have complained they feel their votes can be viewed by others. The tight confines also means voters have to stand outside to wait their turn. And when someone in a wheelchair or someone using a walker needs to vote, the office has to be cleared to allow them to enter.
Talking to voters about their private information means Raynes or her staff have to go into a bathroom or closet to talk. “That’s not very professional,” Raynes said.
Raynes said the 3,000-square foot new space alleviates that problem, providing ample space inside for voters and those who have to wait. And it also has more handicapped parking, in addition to more parking at the nearby building and across the street.
Conservative estimates are at least 4,000 or more could early vote during the upcoming period. Last fall, there were almost 3,700.
“It was a nightmare,” Raynes said of the overcrowding.
She added: “I have put a load of thought and time and effort into the plans for this move and it will be well executed if I am allowed to make it. And if I am not then we will be conducting early voting at a site that protects our voters privacy, No. 1. My concern are the 19,186 voters in this parish. And that is paramount to me and the privacy of them and their right to a secret vote, there is no more priority than that.”
ORIGINAL STORY posted Sept 4:
MANSFIELD, La. – Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin will attend a special DeSoto Parish Police Jury meeting at 4 p.m. today to further weigh in on a controversy about moving the DeSoto Registrar of Voter’s office to a new, larger location.
Ardoin has already been communicating about the issue in letters to Clerk of Court Jeremy Evans, who is opposed to Registrar Amanda Raynes's plans to move her office to Crosby Street, which is about two blocks away from its current location on Franklin Street across from the courthouse. The office will occupy a parish-owned building that’s referred to as the “old library.”
The move will give the registrar’s office 3,000 square feet of space as opposed to the 300-square feet at the current location. The Police Jury has paid for renovations to the building.
But the new location isn’t sitting well with Evans. In a letter to Police Jury President Reggie Roe on Aug. 26, Evans said it his belief the office move equates to a change in polling place for early voting, thus violates state and federal law.
Evans cited state law that dictates when polling places can be changed. But it does make allowances for an emergency, which he says is not the case with the office move.
“I do understand that, over the long-term, the change in the early voting locations will be in the best interest of the voters. However, it is not in the best interest of the voters to have the change take place during the post-qualifying period of a gubernatorial election,” Evans wrote.
Evans said the move would cause confusion and “likely suppress voting, particularly in the Mansfield area. … I am concerned that conducting an election in violation of the Election Code provisions listed above will lead to a losing candidate challenging the election,” continued Evans, who is a candidate for reelection.
Evans then followed up on Aug. 27 with a letter to Ardoin, expressing the same concerns.
“No one has suggested one valid reason for the unprecedented move of changing the location of the Registrar of Voter’s office during an election period,” said Evans, who called the move “reckless and shortsighted.”
Ardoin responded to Evans in two letters – one dated Aug. 26 and another on Aug. 18. “I understand your concerns, but rest assured that this move is indeed necessary to serve the interests of the voters of DeSoto Parish,” he stated.
The secretary of state took issue with Evans’ equating the move of the registrar’s office with moving a polling location. The registrar’s office is not a polling place, he said, and it’s the responsibility of the registrar to pick a place for early voting, not the parish governing body.
Roe told KTBS Wednesday the state fire marshal is scheduled to inspect the new site Thursday. If all goes well, the registrar could move next week.
He said the Police Jury has no say in when or where the registrar moves. That's a state decision, Roe said.
Ardoin said in his letter the registrar needs to move to address concerns and complaints of early voters in previous elections about lack of space, security and privacy. The current registrar’s office creates “significant barriers” for voters with disabilities, he said.
Only four voters can fit in the current office at a time. During last fall’s election, there was a line of 50 voters wrapped around the outside.
Additionally, there are only two handicapped accessible parking spaces, and if a voter is in a wheelchair or using a walker, then Raynes has to direct all voters outside so that the wheelchair or walker can get through the front door, Ardoin noted.
He also said the current set-up poses “significant” privacy issues. Raynes and her staff have to go into a storage closet or the restroom to privately discuss voters’ confidential information.
There also have been complaints from voters about the lack of privacy around the early voting machines, he said.
The new location will have ample indoor space for early voters to wait, public restrooms, two separate entrances and exits and twice as many parking spaces.
“The registrar’s 300 square foot office poses significant hurdles to conducting early voting. The new location alleviates all of those hurdles and is unquestionably the better location to meet the needs of the voters of DeSoto Parish,” Ardoin wrote. Prohibiting the move would mean “ignoring voters’ complaints and would be paramount to suppressing early voting turnout.”
About 4,000 early voters are expected in DeSoto Parish. Early voting for the Oct. 12 election begins Sept. 28.