The staff at Beth Butler’s polling station in the Bywater neighborhood doesn’t even ask her for a photo ID on election day anymore. They know Butler is there to make a point, as well as to cast a ballot.
“Now they just see me and start reaching for the pink affidavits,” said Butler, a longtime community activist.
Her family won’t even vote with her because they’re embarrassed.
In many ways, Louisiana lawmakers have moved in lockstep with their conservative counterparts in other states over the past decade, but not on the subject of voter ID requirements. Even as other states have moved to bar residents from voting if they can’t produce photo identification, Louisiana remains an outlier.
Over the past decade, legislatures in Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and Wisconsin have all passed laws that mandate photos IDs for voting. Similar laws in Texas, Arkansas, Missouri and Pennsylvania were struck down by courts that found the requirements would have a discriminatory effect if enforced.
Louisiana hasn’t even tested those waters. As long as voters like Butler sign the pink affidavit form and supply the correct date of birth and other information, they can still cast a ballot. The affidavits are then verified by the Secretary of State’s Office.
At the same time, the state’s experience suggests that few voters actually turn up on election day without a photo ID.
Typically, across the city’s 351 polling locations, only 50 to 100 people per election identify themselves through affidavit, said Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson. “Most of our voters pretty much come prepared,” she said.
Rosalind Blanco Cook, the president of the League of Woman Voters of New Orleans and the commissioner in charge in Precinct 8-28, said that some, like Butler, vote by affidavit on principle. Others simply lose or misplace their IDs.
Still, on occasion, the protocol isn’t followed.
A few years ago, Trupania Bonner realized he didn’t have his ID when he arrived at his precinct. “Nobody told me I could actually vote,” said Bonner, who works as a monitor for the Open Democracy Project at the Crescent City Media Group. When he asked about affidavits, he was told they had none.
There’s also some disagreement locally about the finer points of the law. The city’s top elections official, Clerk of Criminal District Court Arthur Morrell, says that poll workers can allow voters to cast a ballot without an ID but can also choose to turn them away. “Commissioners can make exceptions, but they don’t have to,” he said.
That’s not how the Secretary of State’s Office sees it. “We say, ‘Remember to bring your ID. But if you don’t have an ID, you can still vote,’” said Meg Casper, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Also, the poll commissioners’ handbook distributed by the Secretary of State’s Office says on page 25, in red capital letters, “DO NOT TURN AWAY A VOTER FOR LACK OF PHOTO ID.”
Louisiana has one of the oldest voter ID laws in the nation, enacted in 1997 after Republican U.S. Senate candidate Woody Jenkins claimed that Mary Landrieu won the 1996 election by 5,788 votes because of voter fraud.
Although a legislative committee found no basis for his allegations, Jenkins suggested high turnouts at majority-black precincts in the 7th and 9th wards in New Orleans were the result of double-voting.
Five months later, state Rep. Peppi Bruneau introduced a voter ID bill. “I think this will put behind us the constant bickering we have had over ‘These are phantom votes’ or ‘These are fraudulent votes,’ ” Bruneau said then.
But without the fallback option of identifying voters with an affidavit, the law might not have survived. At the time, Louisiana and other Southern states with discriminatory voting-law histories were under the oversight of the U.S. Department of Justice as a result of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
Data at the time also showed that black residents of Louisiana were at least four times less likely to have the law’s required identification — an ID card that included both a photo and a signature.
So the Department of Justice likely would have rejected a voter ID requirement unless it included a fail-safe for those who lacked IDs. “Without affidavits, the law would be subject to challenge,” said lawyer Ron Wilson, a longtime expert in voting law.
Every year, after Butler completes her affidavit, the commissioner walks to her registration book. “Marianna Elizabeth Butler,” she says loudly to the commissioner seated next to her at the table, who writes down Butler’s name. Then Butler can walk to a voting booth and cast her ballot.
The routine is actually another way the state tries to verify that someone actually is who they say they are. Louisiana election code stipulates that “each applicant shall identify himself, in the presence and view of bystanders.”
The idea is to give neighbors a chance to call out violators.
“For instance,” said Casper, “if I went to vote and they announced me as Jane Smith, someone might say, ‘That’s not Jane Smith, that’s Meg Casper.”
Any voters who have questions or complaints about voting or polling places can contact their local registrar or call the Secretary of State’s Office hotline at (800) 883-2805 or the Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, which staffs an Election Protection hotline (1-866-OUR-VOTE). Information is also available at GeauxVote.com, the Secretary of State’s Office website, which also is available as a mobile app.