Targeted ads are popping up on Instagram feeds. Yard signs are spicing up lawns. Accountants and academics are volleying reports back and forth.
The halfway point has come and gone for those collecting signatures on a petition that could carve a new city of St. George out of Baton Rouge and the southeastern part of East Baton Rouge Parish. And while St. George organizers have increasingly added signing locations and invited people to weekend signing events, the movement's opponents are investing more money and energy after staying relatively quiet over the campaign's first few months.
Baton Rouge and the would-be city of St. George have been down this path before. A 2015 petition effort fell 71 signatures short of the number necessary to place the issue before voters.
”At this point, we’d just like all the people to sign it last time to sign it again,” said Andrew Murrell, an attorney and spokesman for the St. George campaign. Murrell said it’s been a challenge to counteract the belief that the 17,000 signatures turned in during the previous campaign could be automatically recycled onto the current petition.
St. George organizers said in June that they had collected more than 10,000 signatures on the new petition, of about 13,000 needed. The petition needs valid signatures from 25 percent of the people within St. George's proposed boundary. East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Steve Raborn said the number needed will be determined when the petition drive concludes Nov. 27. The area that would be the city of St. George had 51,804 active registered voters when the petition drive began.
Organizers have used Facebook since the return of their campaign to communicate with supporters, and opponents have countered St. George social media ads with sponsored posts of their own asking followers to support “one Baton Rouge.”
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M.E. Cormier, who is leading the Better Together/Residents Against the Breakaway group, said she expects to hold a town hall once the school year begins about “how a breakaway city would affect the current school district and the hypothetical school district they want to create.”
Cormier also said social media has been important for the opposition, referencing “One BTR” ads that ask people to donate to the opposition effort.
“As a grass-roots opposition campaign, it was very effective for us to pass the hat, and it’s been equally effective if not more so the second time around,” Cormier said.
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Cormier’s group is collaborating with the new One Baton Rouge nonprofit, spearheaded by political consultant Michael Beychok, who helped run parish Mayor-President Sharon Weston Broome’s mayoral campaign.
Cormier said she would like to see more information on the potential creation of a new school system, which was the original goal of the St. George movement. Parents should be concerned about the lack of information surrounding how St. George would run a school system and build the infrastructure for it, she said.
Murrell said St. George will release information about a schools budget if the movement makes it onto a ballot. In turn, he wanted to know the opposition's take on a recent announcement from the NAACP that it wants to reverse the consolidation of city-parish government and create a city council to solely govern the city of Baton Rouge.
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Cormier responded that her group does not plan to get involved in the NAACP debate, but she said it would oppose any mission to break up the city-parish government. She said the consolidated government system keeps taxes lower and makes services more efficient for the whole parish.
Murrell said he’s expecting increased attacks from the St. George opposition.
“I’m so not concerned with the opposition at this point,” he said. “I’m concerned about the people who live in St. George and what they want to do with their future.”
While St. George organizers originally pinned their goal signature number at 12,951, one quarter of 51,804, Murrell said the goal has oscillated day by day, changing as voters move to and from the area.
Murrell said organizers have kept an eye on a recent U.S. Supreme Court case, in which the court ruled that the state could purge inactive voters from its rolls. The distinction between active and inactive voters could be important if voters deemed inactive sign the St. George petition.
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Raborn, the registrar, asked Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry for clarification on whether inactive voters would count if they signed the St. George petition. Although there is a belief that inactive voters are those who have not voted in a while, in reality, they are those who have problems with their voter registration address. For example, he said, a voter in East Baton Rouge might be considered inactive if their mail is returned to a post office.
Raborn said state law says inactive voters are not considered “electors” and therefore should not be included in voter counts for an area. But he said the election code allows an inactive voter to sign the St. George petition and for that process to serve as an address confirmation to reactivate the voter.