Eased voting rules sought after storms

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Louisiana legislators are scrambling to enable displaced voters who have moved to distant states to cast absentee ballots in a February election by loosening the state’s identification requirements, although the idea’s backers suffered a pair of defeats yesterday.

A bill in the House and Senate limits existing laws that require first-time voters who have registered by mail to show identification and to vote in person.

Opponents of changing the law say it could lead to voter fraud in a state with a long and colorful history of political corruption.

A Senate panel this week passed a bill, introduced by state Sen. Charles Jones of upstate Monroe, a Democrat, that would loosen identification requirements because, Mr. Jones said, “an unprecedented number of persons have been temporarily displaced from their parishes of residence for an indefinite period.”

The full Senate rejected it on a 20-16 vote yesterday, and the House later rejected a voter bill from Rep. Jalila Jefferson-Bullock, New Orleans Democrat.

But other, similar bills are pending.

“It’s a work in progress, but once it takes life, it can take other forms and go right back to how it started,” said state Sen. Jay Dardenne, Baton Rouge Republican.

Mr. Dardenne said the Jones bill initially let voters registered through the federal Motor-Voter Act cast a first-time absentee ballot in 2006.

“It would have created a universe of 23,000 potential voters, all of whom never bothered to vote before,” said Mr. Dardenne, who amended the bill in committee.

Jennifer Marusak, spokeswoman for Secretary of State Al Ater, says the legislation would ensure that storm refugees can vote.

“Before you can vote by mail, someone has to see that you exist. You can’t register a ton of people by mail, that opens it up to voter fraud, that’s valid. But that’s why only people who registered before Sept. 24 can vote,” she said.

Hurricane Rita hit the Louisiana and Texas coast on that date.

“In our mind, they had every intention of coming to vote and did not anticipate not being able to get to their local precinct. We’re giving them the benefit of the doubt,” she said.

Restrictions in the legislation, including a one-year sunset and a requirement for identification affidavits, will cut down on fraud, supporters say.

Mr. Dardenne questions whether displaced residents could pay a notary public for an affidavit. He said he wants people to vote, but “the integrity of the process” needs protection.

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