Election opponents of Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin are crying foul over an official letter he wrote reassuring elderly participants in a program that allows absentee voting by mail.
Ardoin’s staff dismisses the criticism saying the letter is just part of the job of educating voters.
Not really, his Democratic and fellow Republican opponents countered in a nearly identical voice. An official letter, they say, mailed at taxpayer expense 47 days before an election in which Ardoin is a candidate, smacks more of cynicism than public service.
The recipients are over the age of 65 or disabled, have a proven record of actually casting ballots, and choose to vote absentee mail in all elections. Only the secretary of state, as Louisiana’s chief elections officer, has access to the list.
Like Ardoin, the candidates in the Nov. 6 election are largely unknown outside the political world and they are competing in an election that has attracted little interest and little money to fund a credible statewide campaign.
“Only Ardoin has access to that list. By sending the letter under his name, he knows that he was taking advantage of his position for the benefit of his campaign,” said A.G. Crowe, a former Republican state senator from Pearl River who is running as a Republican.
“It’s really unfair,” said Turkey Creek Mayor Heather Cloud, who also is running as a Republican. The sentiments Ardoin expressed in the letter are laudable, but the timing and the fact that it’s the first time any secretary of state felt the need to send such correspondence “doesn’t appear to be a true reflection of his motives,” Cloud said.
As the office’s chief deputy, Ardoin became interim secretary of state in May when Tom Schedler resigned after being accused of sexually harassing an employee.
Ardoin mailed 47,039 letters – at a cost to taxpayers of $23,964.63. “My office and your parish registrar of voters will never disclose that you are enrolled in the program, and state law prohibits voter harassment, coercion or intimidation by candidates or third parties,” Ardoin wrote in the letter dated Sept. 20.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin's letter of Sept 20, 2018
Ardoin’s press secretary, Tyler Brey, said the letter was part of an outreach campaign that includes public service announcements and social media to help educate voters of their rights. While the office received less than a dozen complaints about the mailer, more than a dozen have communicated their appreciation, he said.
Ardoin’s campaign staff said the critics only want to create name identification for their candidacies – “going so far as to complain about informing senior citizens of their rights, just so they can win a political race,” said Lionel Rainey III, the campaign’s spokesman.
“Apparently, Secretary Ardoin's opponents don't think he should be doing his job, or they don't understand what the job is. I'm not sure which is worse,” Rainey said.
Candidate Rick Edmonds, a Republican state representative from Baton Rouge, said: “Sending an unprecedented campaign-oriented letter on the taxpayers' dime to a confidential list is blatantly wrong.”
Though Edmonds and state Rep. Julie Stokes, the Kenner Republican who has raised the most money in the field, agree on little, they spoke similarly about the letter. "This is the very reason I’m running. People can’t stand when politicians do things like this, and I want to change it,” Stokes said.
While angry, the opponents say they realize Ardoin broke no ethics rules – largely because those laws have not been adopted. A legislative effort – House Bill 53 – that would have at least raised a legal question about a candidate mailing such correspondence on a state agency letterhead was defeated in the Louisiana House during the regular session earlier this year. Both Edmonds and Stokes voted in favor of the legislation.
“It’s arguably legal to do that,” said Renee Fontenot Free, a Democratic candidate from Baton Rouge who was chief assistant to earlier secretaries of state before joining the Attorney General’s office. “But unarguably it’s in very bad taste. It’s shameful.”