If the city of St. George is dead, then Better Together is arguably the group that killed it.
In the end, the Registrar of Voters Office found the petition failed by 71 names.
During the final three days of the registrar checking the petition, Better Together leader M.E. Cormier turned in 209 withdrawal forms that members of her group collected. They had already turned in almost 1,000 before that.
The withdrawals made the difference.
In total, the withdrawals peeled away a crucial 4.2 percent of the names off the petition, which was less than half of 1 percent away from clinching the 17,859 signatures needed to call a much-anticipated election to create a new city.
But Better Together didn’t just succeed with hard work and hope, although there was plenty of that. They were strategic, deeply data driven and meticulous with their record keeping — motivated by a fear that the proposed new city would devastate the parish financially and further injure the public school system.
“It doesn’t take a genius to count,” Cormier said about their strategy.
200 more withdrawals
Better Together held a news conference more than a year ago to inform the public that if they had signed the petition, they could still remove their names if they changed their minds.
At the time of the press conference, St. George — whose leaders have not conceded their fight is over — was still very much in the midst of collecting signatures in hopes of getting more than 18,000 names on the petition. The notion that people who had signed onto the idea of creating a new city in the southern part of East Baton Rouge Parish would then change their minds seemed far-fetched.
But by the end, Better Together collected 1,150 withdrawal forms. Of those, the registrar counted 963 valid.
Looking back, it’s hard for leaders of the group to remember who came up with the idea that ultimately became the cornerstone of their campaign against St. George.
Dianne Hanley, another Better Together leader, recalled about a dozen of the core group members sitting around a table one evening reading the Lawrason Act, the provision of the law that allows for city incorporations. At that point, they identified the withdrawal process and realized it was something they could use to their advantage.
“We didn’t realize at the time how big it would be,” she said.
After the petition was submitted to the registrar in October, the group requested the public record and spent weeks independently validating it and mining it for information.
They created a database and sent mailers to nearly every person who signed the petition asking them to remove their names. In March, the registrar provided the news that St. George was short and would get 60 days to make up the difference.
St. George submitted the final 4,600 names on the petition in May and was forbidden from turning in any more. It was then Better Together kicked into high gear.
They again requested the petition and compared every signature to voter rolls to determine how many signatures would be rejected. Since they were able to beat the registrar to the punch, they calculated about how many withdrawal forms they needed to shut down the petition.
At that point, there was no more guess work. They knew if they could get more than 200 valid withdrawal forms in the registrar’s hands before he finished, they would have enough to stop the vote.
Those last 200 withdrawal forms were turned in the last three days before the petition process was closed.
The withdrawals mostly came from canvassing.
In total, Better Together collected 1,150 withdrawal forms — 84 percent of that came from door-to-door canvassing, said Cormier, the numbers whiz.
The rest came from people using the mailers the group sent out.
Canvassing started out monthly and then rapidly developed into an almost daily occurrence.
The canvassers knocked on the doors of 35 percent of the people who signed the petition, according to their records. Of the people who answered the door, Better Together was successful in getting a withdrawal form 36 percent of the time.
The canvassing effort was targeted and organized.
They started at the northern border of the proposed city, which touches the city of Baton Rouge, and worked their way south, assuming stronger St. George support farther south and that people closer to the boundary might be on the fence.
The group also targeted neighborhoods in school zones where the incorporation and proposed new school system could displace students from nearby schools.
The homes were broken down into precincts, and every day, canvassers would be assigned a list of addresses to visit. They kept notes on every visit.
“H was for not home, A was abandoned house or they moved and X was for don’t go back because they love St. George,” Hanley said. They also took notes on whether the person was on the fence and someone should return. And of course, W was marked for a withdraw.
Ken and Linda Burns, both retired and in their 70s, were two of the most frequent canvassers and attained 111 withdrawal forms, more than any other volunteers.
Ken Burns said the hardest part was catching people when they were home. But he was persistent.
“We just kept going back until somebody was home,” he said. “I went as many as five times to one house.”
Burns said he and his wife dedicated their nights and weekends to the effort because they believe St. George is “the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard of in my life.”
“Most of the people who signed that petition, they never went to a school board meeting ... they never wrote their councilman a letter,” he said. “They never tried to improve Baton Rouge before; they just immediately went for the split.”
St. George says not dead
St. George organizers, for their part, disagree that the petition is dead.
They claim there are errors in the process and are working to mount a legal challenge to the registrar’s declaration.
But they don’t disagree that Better Together has been a critical thorn in their side.
“What did they defeat?” asked St. George spokesman Lionel Rainey. “You defeated democracy; you temporarily stopped an election.”
Leaders and advocates with St. George have described Better Together as aggressive and threatening.
A letter posted on the St. George Facebook page described an incident with a Better Together canvasser. “He screamed at (my wife) saying ‘You must be one of the Devils who signed the petition,’ ” the letter said. “He then preceded to ring the doorbell and bang on the door for over five minutes until he finally left.”
Cormier said the letter, which was sent to them as well, came from a St. George proponent. But she said their notes show that canvassers weren’t in the neighborhood the day of the alleged incident.
Ken Burns said he’s grateful the petition has been defeated and gave the credit to the leaders of Better Together: Cormier, Hanley and Broderick Bagert, who also is staff organizer with advocate group Together Baton Rouge.
“I think M.E. is better than any analyst who works in the Registrar’s Office,” he said. “Her, Dianne and Broderick came up with that plan for the withdrawals and targeting the right group of people, and they did an outstanding job.”