Expecting St. George controversy, Baton Rouge registrar asking for legal clarifications

    The East Baton Rouge Registrar of Voters is requesting the state attorney general’s opinion on more than two dozen questions regarding how his office is to handle the underway drive to create an independent city of St. George once the incorporation petition is submitted for verification.

    Parish Registrar Steve Raborn wants to clear up confusion on a variety of topics, including the petition deadline, the legality of mailed sign-and-return petitions, questions regarding the verification of signatures and the challenge process as well as other issues that arose during the first St. George incorporation attempt, which failed in 2015 when his office declare the effort fell 71 votes short. His office sent more than two dozen questions to the attorney general last Thursday.

    “It’s such a highly contentious matter—we want everything nailed down in advance,” Raborn says. “We want to make sure we know what we’re supposed to do under state law.”

    St. George organizers have nine months to collect 25% of registered voters’ signatures in the proposed city boundaries. But there is some confusion over when the nine-month drive began. Organizers submitted the petition March 2 to the Secretary of State’s office in person and received a notified letter in receipt over the counter. But the law says the petition drive begins from the date notification is received by certified mail, so Raborn says he wants the attorney general to clarify that.

    Raborn also requested guidance pertaining to contested petition signatures or changes to the status of signatures. This came up during the first St. George petition drive. Opposition groups ultimately defeated the incorporation movement in 2015 by encouraging people who signed to reconsider and remove their names from the petition.

    But a new state law passed in 2016 now prevents the registrar, who verifies the signatures, from withdrawing names more than five days after they have been submitted to his office.

    “The process was a lot more open-ended last time around,” says Raborn, who was appointed registrar in late 2015, toward the end of the first petition drive.

    Some of Raborn’s questions to the attorney general include: Whether the registrar may count signatures collected from mailed incorporation petitions, whether the registrar can accept or reject a signature based on verified information provided by a third party—for example, if a third party proves that a signee does not live in the proposed boundaries—and what the registrar should do if someone claims their signature was accepted or rejected in error or forged. Other questions deal with how much information he must make public and when.

    Raborn says his office has already received a few calls about the petition drive since it kicked off, and he wants to ensure the process goes smoothly this time around.

    “Some of my questions are based on things we want to be clarified because of the reading of statutes,” he says, “and some are things that happened during the last petition.”

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