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Registrar of Voters Chief Deputy Joanne Reed, left, and administrative assistant Karen Jackson, right, begin the task of Date and Page Stamping each document of the St. George petitions for incorporation at the East Baton Rouge Registrar of Voters office on Oct. 15, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La.

The window has closed: People who signed the latest petition to place the St. George proposal on the ballot can no longer remove their names, even if proponents get additional time to gather more signatures, the state Attorney General's Office said Tuesday. 

That opinion is part of the 18-page response from Attorney General Jeff Landry's office to 29 questions Steve Raborn, registrar of voters for East Baton Rouge Parish, posed five months ago regarding his office’s handling of the newest petition to let the public vote on creating a city in the southeast portion of the parish.

The AG's response mostly outlines how Raborn's office should be verifying the 14,500 signatures it received last week.

As of 4:30 p.m. Monday, the last day to add or remove a name, his office had received requests from 23 people wanting their names removed and from 97 people seeking to add their names, Raborn said. 

The AG's opinion is unclear on how possible annexations could affect the signature verification process, a question that popped up recently after leaders opposed to the St. George movement revealed that several businesses and a large subdivision are poised to request to be drawn into Baton Rouge city limits. 

"If it becomes an issue, we will seek advice on that," Raborn said Tuesday afternoon. 

When asked for comment on the overall AG opinion, Raborn said he hadn't had a chance to look at it yet because his office is tied up with early voting. 

Raborn had asked the AG's Office for guidance on how to interpret various state laws regarding incorporation campaigns, given some of the fallout from the St. George proponents' failed 2015 attempt. 

Proponents for and against St. George questioned the registrar's methods back then. St. George organizers filed a lawsuit arguing the previous registrar made substantive errors during the verification process; a state judge dismissed the lawsuit. St. George opponents, known as Better Together, had released an analysis that claimed more than 200 of the signatures the Registrar's Office had accepted as valid were not, based on voter registration records.

The past St. George campaign fell 71 signatures short of being placed on the ballot.  None of the signatures on those petitions will count in the latest petition drive.

This time around, proponents need 12,951 valid signatures — that's 25 percent of the registered voters living within St. George's proposed boundary at the time the petition drive officially began.

The proponents said they submitted about 14,500 signatures on Oct. 15.  

One of the amendments to state law that passed in 2016 says the registrar cannot remove names from a petition more than five days after the office receives it, in this case that was 4:30 p.m. Monday. 

Raborn had asked for clarity on whether names could be removed if the proponents are given additional time to collect signatures.

The AG's Office notes that a separate provision in the law gives proponents an additional 60 days to gather signatures if the registrar determines they failed to collect the 25 percent needed from active voters living within the proposed boundaries, but no names can be stricken from the petition during that time.

Raborn also asked about petition fraud, which was raised in 2015 after a number of people said their signatures had been forged. 

The AG's Office said the registrar doesn't have the authority to investigate or pursue any claims of forgery. Anyone making those accusations must report them to the Secretary of State's Office or the local district attorney. The opinion also notes that no state law allows Raborn to use information from any third-party groups (like proponent or opposition groups) to weigh in on signature verification, and that anyone questioning whether his office erred in accepting or rejecting signatures would need to do so through the court system.  

What happens if a person who signed the petition dies or moves outside of the proposed boundary after having signed the petition? The AG's opinion says those signatures will be considered valid as long those people were registered voters within the proposed boundaries when they signed the petition.

As for updates on the verification process, the AG says state law doesn't require the registrar to give out any information about the process over the telephone, although the registrar must allow the public to view the petitions, which are public records. 

Raborn, who previously said his office would not begin verifying the signatures until after the response from the AG's Office, had noted "we hope to start soon after receiving the AG opinion if we are able, but we certainly won’t be checking at full speed until we get the November and December elections behind us."

His office is under no set deadline to verify the signatures and render a decision on whether the proposition will move forward or whether it failed, the AG's Office said. 

But, "the courts generally require diligence and expedition in the performance of a government official's assigned duties," the AG's opinion says, "and the same diligence and expedition should be exercised with respect to the review and certification of a petition of incorporation."   


Follow Terry Jones on Twitter, @tjonesreporter.