Louisiana Elections

Interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, R-Baton Rouge, talks to reporters about his last-minute decision to run in the special election for secretary of state, on Friday, July 20, 2018, in Baton Rouge, La. Friday was the last day of the sign-up period for the Nov. 6 ballot. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte) ORG XMIT: RPMD104

A casual observer of the Secretary of State’s race — and that includes pretty much everyone — could be forgiven for mistaking George Soros as the leading candidate.

The Hungarian-born New York billionaire investor, who funds progressive causes and has become the latest piñata for right-wing rage, is the most mentioned name at candidate forums despite his lack of involvement in this race.

“George Soros wants to take your ballot away, letting illegal aliens register and vote, that’s the only way liberals can win,” said state Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, echoing the words of the other candidates.

Poorly funded and populated by nine little-known politicos, the campaign for Louisiana’s third highest ranking state official has attracted little attention even though the race tops the Nov. 6 ballot, four weeks from now.

Candidates also are critical, though not quite as loudly, of the tactics of interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who until his boss quit in May following sexual harassment allegations, was the nuts-and-bolts administrator for the office that oversees elections, registers businesses and archives the state’s records.

He said he wasn’t going to run for the final year of Tom Schedler’s term. But when the door literally shut on official qualifying, Ardoin announced he had signed up to seek the office. He felt none of the candidates had experience enough to guide Louisiana through the rocky shoals of tightening ballot security while staging a 2019 election for the governor, other statewide officials (including secretary of state) and the entire 144-seat Legislature.

His opponents pushed reporters to go after Ardoin on various issues, such as contracts to replace 10,000 voting machines. But not wanting to introduce themselves to voters by throwing mud, the candidates wouldn’t go there themselves — at least in the public forums where this underfunded race is being run.

From the pulpit of Greenwell Springs Baptist Church, five of the candidates Tuesday night talked mainly about who hated liberals more.

As former state Sen. A.G. Crowe left the sanctuary, the Pearl River Republican said he didn’t confront Ardoin with issues he thought warranted official investigations because “it’s not the right place for that.”

During a Thursday night forum before a coalition of Baton Rouge area Republican women’s clubs, the conversation remained polite — hors d'oeuvres had been served.

That changed when “last question” was called.

Kim Powers, who had been standing for a while waiting to be recognized, shouted out her question.

She’s running for council member at large in the Town of Central and had asked in August for the list of voters in her town who were mailed ballots because they are too old or too disabled to get to the polls. She wanted to personally ask support from this group who had demonstrated their willingness to vote — a consequential group in a low-turnout election.

Why, Powers asked, was she denied access to the list for political purposes — a 2012 law protects the names of those participating in the mail-in ballot program — when Ardoin used that same list, to which only he has access, and mailed a thinly veiled campaign letter.

On Sept. 20, Ardoin wrote 47,039 mail ballot voters: “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 said his job includes educating voters, and that’s what he did — at a cost to taxpayers of $23,964.63. No previous secretary of state had mailed such warnings.

The gloves came off.

“It is just not the right thing to do,” Stokes said. She then ticked off infractions she thinks disqualify Ardoin on ethical grounds, from the imbroglio over contracts for new voting machines to buying vanity plates proclaiming him as secretary of state.

Crowe said he would push for new laws that would forbid future secretaries of state from using their official position to campaign. Edmonds said he wasn’t buying that the letter was technically legal.

“As a public servant, we are to avoid the appearance of impropriety, period,” said Republican Turkey Creek Mayor Heather Cloud.

The forum quickly ended.

Coming off the stage, Ardoin pulled a card from his coat pocket and, carefully putting a thumb over the writer's name to protect her identity, showed a handwritten note thanking him for his “sweet” letter.

“I was doing my job,” Ardoin said. Then, nodding toward Powers, he added, “She wanted to send political messages.”

It remains to be seen if Powers’ question marked a beginning of more raucous debate or was an aberration. The candidates meet again Monday at noon for the Press Club of Baton Rouge.

Follow Mark Ballard on Twitter, @MarkBallardCnb.