New Orleans — Opponents of the Crescent City Connection tolls were dealt another blow Tuesday when a recount actually increased the margin of victory for the fees, but that doesn’t mean the fight against the tolls is over.
A recount of the absentee and early voting ballots cast by New Orleans voters in November’s election showed that a 20-year renewal of the toll actually won by 36 total votes instead of the 18 voters previously reported by the Secretary of State. That recount was held Saturday in New Orleans, and the results were released by 19th Judicial District Judge William Morvant on Tuesday.
Stop the Tolls LLC, a West Bank advocacy group, challenged the results of the election in December citing the small margin of victory and concerns about irregularities in voting in New Orleans. G. Patrick Hand III, the attorney who filed that challenge, said the results of the recount weren’t what the group expected, but the fact that the total changed validates the group’s decision to seek a recount.
“I felt very confident that there was going to be a change in the results,” Hand said. “I am disappointed in the outcome, but this is the beginning not the end.”
Hand said Stop the Tolls was always prepared to seek to nullify the entire election if the recount didn’t change the result and will proceed with that attempt. A trial on that nullification is scheduled to begin in March in Baton Rouge, he said.
As Hand noted in his initial filing, many eligible voters were prevented from voting on the toll renewal because changes in their regular polling place caught them by surprise. Those voters had to cast provisional ballots, which did not allow voting on local issues. Hand said more than 1,600 people were forced to use provisional ballots, and he thinks those numbers would have definitely impacted the election.
In addition, the group has claimed that a female election worker in eastern New Orleans was telling voters that if they opposed the renewal they would see their property taxes increase. Not only is that incorrect, but it also violates election law, Hand said. He added that 200 people voted at that poll worker’s site, and they overwhelmingly supported the renewal.
“We feel confident about Phase 2 of this process,” Hand said.
Stop the Tolls opposed the renewal because of claims that the fee represents an unfair tax that is primarily levied on West Bank residents. The group also complained about waste and abuse with the roughly $22 million generated from the tolls.
Todd Murphy, president of the Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, said while he understands the group’s frustration, he would prefer to see a different phase two in the toll saga. Murphy was one of several Jefferson Parish heavy hitters to come out in support of the renewal and said he always understood that opponents of the renewal needed time to exercise their rights as Americans.
“We’ve maintained all along that it was a close election,” Murphy said. “I certainly respect the other side’s position to make sure that all the votes were counted.”
Now, it’s time to change direction and look at making certain that money generated by the tolls is used to improve Jefferson Parish, he said. Parish officials are already having discussions with the state on capital projects fueled by toll money, and Murphy said it’s counterproductive to still contest the election.
“We’ve been focused on accountability going forward,” Murphy said. “Hopefully everybody can get on the same page.”