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New Orleans mayor fights lowered recall signature threshold

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A court settlement that significantly lowered the number of petition signatures New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell's opponents need to force a recall election was challenged in two state courts Tuesday by Cantrell and one of her supporters.

In New Orleans, one lawsuit calls for a judge to set aside the settlement that reduced the number of signatures by about 5,000 votes. It says Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin violated the law when he entered into the settlement with recall organizers who had challenged New Orleans voter roll numbers.

A similar lawsuit challenging Ardoin's authority to agree to the settlement was filed in state court in Baton Rouge, according to a news release.

Recall efforts began last August, less than a year after Cantrell, the first woman to serve as New Orleans mayor, began her second term. She had been easily reelected in 2021 but has since faced numerous problems including stubborn violent crime, fitful progress on major street projects that have left some city streets a mess, and unreliable garbage collection. Questions also have been raised about her travel expenses and her personal use of a city-owned apartment. And the City Council recently opened an investigation into the use of public money to send a mailer to city residents earlier this year touting Cantrell’s accomplishments.

To force a recall election, petitioners are required to obtain valid signatures from 20% of voters deemed qualified — sometimes referred to as “active voters” — under state law. The March 1 settlement came after recall organizers sued election officials saying New Orleans voter rolls still list hundreds of dead people and thousands of voters who should be placed on an “inactive” list because they have likely moved.

For purposes of the recall petition, the settlement dropped the total number of New Orleans voters who are considered active from 249,876 to 224,876, thereby reducing the number of signatures needed from nearly 50,000 to just below 45,000.

It remains unclear whether recall organizers have reached either threshold. Organizers turned petitions over for validating on Feb. 22 but have not said how many signatures they collected. The Orleans Parish voter registrar is working to validate and certify signatures by a March 22 deadline.

“The Secretary of State acted without constitutional or legislative authority in reducing the number of qualified voters required to trigger a recall election,” said Marion Floyd, an attorney for Cantrell and the Rev. Willie Calhoun. “Simply put, Ardoin did not have the power to make that change and make it retroactive to the date of submission of the recall petition."

An Ardoin spokesman declined to comment Tuesday morning. Recall organizer Eileen Carter said she believes Ardoin had the authority to enter the settlement. But she also said she welcomed the litigation because it will help determine the correct number of active New Orleans voters.

The New Orleans lawsuit notes that the state judge who approved the settlement, Civil District Court Judge Jennifer Medley, had signed the recall petition. That fact had not been made public at the time of the settlement. Medley did not disclose it, and it was only revealed after The Times-Picayune/The New Orleans Advocate obtained some of the signatures by filing a lawsuit.

Cantrell, a Democrat, has repeatedly criticized the recall effort as a Republican-led attack on the administration of a Black, Democratic woman. Carter and Belden Batiste, leaders of the recall effort, are Black Democrats. However, campaign finance reports list a Republican businessman, Rick Farrell, as the major financial backer of the effort.