An advisory panel that is examining hurdles people face when they want to vote in Louisiana spent several hours at the State Capitol on Wednesday discussing the state's registration requirements, locations of polling places and ways to aid disadvantaged communities.
The Louisiana Advisory Committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights held its second meeting Wednesday as part of an effort to evaluate the state's voting laws and report back to the federal bipartisan advisory commission.
Members heard from several advocates for making voting more accessible and easier, as well as the Louisiana secretary of state's office.
"This is a tremendous opportunity," said First Assistant Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin. "There's no such thing as a perfect election because we are all human and we all make mistakes, but we do the best job possible."
Secretary of State Tom Schedler was out of the state and unable to attend.
The issues raised included concerns over race, poverty, imprisonment and education as barriers to voting.
Jhacova Williams, a student pursuing a doctorate at LSU, has been researching issues related to economics and diversity and how they relate to voting behavior.
"Low voter turnout among blacks is common in many cities across Louisiana," she said, arguing that black voters often end up underrepresented.
She said that her research has found parishes with higher average income levels tend to have more polling places and those with larger black populations have fewer voting machines.
"It's important that you allocate the right amount of polling places in an area so everyone has access to voting," she said.
State Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, a New Orleans Democrat who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee as well as the Louisiana Democratic Party, said the state law that bars convicted felons from voting while incarcerated, on parole or on probation unfairly restricts the right to vote.
"Such laws have significant disproportional impact on African Americans," she said. "How long do they have to pay that price?"
Peterson also voiced concerns about the state's restrictions on when someone can be assisted with voting and said she worries it could impact people with disabilities.
Susan Meyers, community engagement director for the New Orleans-based Advocacy Center of Louisiana that aids people with disabilities, said that having polling places on non-governmental sites like churches, or in rare instances in people's homes, can create accessibility issues.
She also noted concerns about people being barred from voting improperly and cited a recent case where a woman who had been committed to a short-term mental facility was later improperly purged from the voting rolls.
"I think lack of training and ignorance of all the various laws that inform someone's right to vote abounds," Meyers said.
And Nia Weeks, director of policy for the New Orleans-based Women with Vision, said that hurdles abound for black women, especially single mothers, that could be eased with longer early voting periods and other outreach.
"There are still barriers that prevent them from actually exercising their right to vote," she said, adding that black women make up an "untapped population" of voters. "It's really difficult to engage people and get them excited and when they go try to engage that meaningful government, they're not able to."
It's unclear what form the advisory panel's final report will take or what suggestions might make their way into it. Also unclear is what will come out of the findings.
Advisory committees in other states have recently published reports ranging from findings on hate crimes to civil rights to voting.
Ardoin, with the secretary of state's office, said that Louisiana has gone to lengths to make voting easier. He touted the state's roll-out of online voter registration and award-winning website that provides instant access to sample ballots and polling location information.
"Much of what was stated here today, we've been looking at," he said.
He noted that the state is in the process of purchasing new voting machines to replace its aging stock. He said he's hopeful that the state will be able to purchase new machines that can allow voters the opportunity to cast ballots in other precincts, among other efforts meant to make voting easier.
"It all takes technology, which takes money," Ardion said.