Even before he was elected Secretary of State last year, Kyle Ardoin learned the hard way just how fond Louisiana voters are of the customary "I voted!" stickers they'd been getting when they cast their ballots.
Ardoin, who was running his first election as acting secretary and also on the ballot for the permanent post, hadn't planned to supply them to local polling places, prompting a social media backlash from disappointed voters.
"Who knew?" Ardoin said recently, looking back on the ordeal. "But we heard them loud and clear."
It was the first major backfire for Ardoin, who was thrust into the acting role when his former boss, Republican Tom Schedler, resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
Last December, Ardoin, a Baton Rouge Republican, defeated Gwen Collins-Greenup, a Clinton Democrat, in a special election to become Louisiana's chief elections officer. Now they are heading toward a rematch.
The two again find themselves as the main candidates for Secretary of State — this time seeking a full four-year term, with election security and attempted foreign influence among the most pressing issues the country faces. The other two candidates in the primary are Thomas J. Kennedy III, of Metairie, and Amanda "Jennings" Smith, of Bastrop. Both are Republicans.
Ballot security is the top issue that Collins-Greenup, whom the state Democratic Party endorsed ahead of the Oct. 12 election, and Ardoin, whom the Louisiana GOP endorsed, focus on in their campaigns — among the first issues they mention when detailing their priorities.
“In administering our elections, states face security challenges of unprecedented magnitude,” researchers concluded in a recent bipartisan national report on state election system deficiencies. “Elections are the pillar of American democracy, and, as we saw in 2016 and 2018, foreign governments will continue to target them.” The study was conducted by the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, the Alliance for Securing Democracy, the R Street Institute, and the University of Pittsburgh Institute for Cyber Law, Policy, and Security.
“Election security is a priority right now with interference in our outdated voter systems," said Collins-Greenup, a businesswoman.
Said Ardoin: "There's a lot of foreign influence trying to get folks to not believe in our system."
Louisiana is one of only three states that still rely on paperless voting machines, which means it doesn’t keep voter-verifiable paper backups.
The effort to purchase new machines that would leave a paper audit trail was also a key issue in the campaigns last year.
But an effort to replace the voting machines the state bought more than a decade ago has faced repeated setbacks, including state budget woes, contested contracts and other political squabbles.
It remains unclear when a new system may be put in place — certainly not before all statewide positions, including a contested governor's race, appear on the ballot this fall along with all 144 state legislative seats and possibly not before the 2020 presidential and congressional election cycle.
Collins-Greenup said the lack of post-election paper audits and the state’s failure to have new machines in time for major election cycles should be major concerns.
“We didn’t get them, so I’m looking to replace our outdated voting machines,” she said. “My platform is pretty simple – protecting Louisiana.”
The state is spending $2 million this year to rent temporary early-voting machines for the October and Nov. 16 elections. Early voting for the Oct. 12 election starts Saturday and ends Oct. 5, excluding Sunday.
Ardoin, the former first assistant secretary of state for eight years, took over on an interim basis after the Schedler's resignation.
Ardoin's defended his handling of the new role, despite obstacles during the transition. He said he often spends time explaining security efforts to voters.
“Voters have questions about that,” he said. "Are my votes secure and will they be accurately counted?"
He said the rented machines are a temporary effort to address concerns until a long-term solution can be finalized.
"We're really pleased to have bridged that gap and solved that issue,” he said.
He stressed that Louisiana’s voting machines are programmed in-house and never connect to the internet.
He recently had representatives from the state’s cybersecurity commission check the machines that will be used.
"They've given us a thumbs up on what we're doing,” Ardoin said. "We're going to use the same standards we have and beef that up."
Collins-Greenup is hoping her message of working together toward positive change will resonate with voters who have been frustrated by the political process.
"Change doesn’t happen overnight," she said. "We’ve proven when Louisianans work together positive change can happen."