It’s looking more and more likely that voters living in the proposed city of St. George won’t get to vote on whether to form a new city this year.
The election date has been a moving target for the incorporation effort’s leaders, who months ago were aiming for November, then December, and now concede it could be a spring election.
Lionel Rainey, St. George spokesman, said Friday the spring ballot is likely.
“We’re going to turn in the petition as soon as we get to 20,000 signatures,” Rainey said. “That could very likely mean a spring ballot unless we get another 1,500 signatures or so over the course of the next couple weeks.”
The group announced in late August that it had cleared its initial hurdle of securing the minimum required number of signatures — 17,746 — on a petition to put the city proposal to a vote. But organizers are seeking additional signatures from residents as insurance because it’s likely some signatures will be tossed because of technical mistakes when the petition goes through the validation process.
Rainey says the group now has about 18,500 signatures and is seeking 1,500 more.
St. George leaders lacked enough signatures to submit the petition in time for Nov. 4, which is sure to have the highest voter turnout because of elections to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives and other races on the ballot.
And it appears as though the group may have already missed its window to get on the December ballot, which would require the Secretary of State’s Office to have the petition in hand by Oct. 21. Before the petition goes to the state, the parish Registrar of Voters Office would need several weeks to validate each individual signature.
Elaine Lamb, East Baton Rouge Parish registrar, has said the petition should have been turned in by the beginning of September to make it on the December ballot.
Rainey said last month that organizers of the St. George incorporation effort hoped to turn the petition in by the beginning of October, but he now concedes even that could be a stretch.
He also noted that a spring election with a lower voter turnout could work to organizers’ advantage.
“There would likely be a lower turnout for a spring ballot, which would play better for us, but this is a very high-profile issue and not your typical off-cycle initiative,” Rainey said. “So to try and predict the turnout would be difficult.”
Baton Rouge political analyst Roy Fletcher said a spring ballot absolutely helps the chances of winning the election.
“There’s no question about that — the turnout in an off-election season is never anything but low,” Fletcher said. “The people that turn out are more conservative, more the kind of voter that would be inclined to vote for the pro-St. George position.”
He noted that agencies frequently have tax elections in the spring, which generally pass because people pushing the measure tend to be the ones who show up to vote.
“It doesn’t happen like that by accident,” Fletcher said.
Another political strategist, Mike Smith, said he thinks it would be wise for St. George proponents to push forward with a December election, which also would likely be a low voter turnout election.
He noted that the St. George leaders’ real end game is a new school system, which still needs clearance from the state Legislature.
“My advice from a strategic standpoint is to go with a December election and carry that momentum into the beginning of next year,” Smith said. “They still have to go in front of the Legislature, assuming the city is formed, to seek approval of the school district.”
He said people are preoccupied with holiday planning in December, which means voter turnout is likely to be lower.
“To motivate people to vote during the Christmas shopping seasons is hard,” Smith said. “There are very few weekends to shop, and it’s just not on the top of folks’ minds.”
The incorporation effort was born out of a desire by residents in the southeast part of the parish to create an independent school system. The school system was defeated twice in the Legislature, with many lawmakers citing that the area is not a city.
The proposed city is about 80 square miles and 100,000 residents. Critics of the new city say St. George could have devastating impacts on the parish budget, which would lose the sales tax revenues generated in the proposed limits of the new city.