This is an election contest arising from the runoff election for sheriff of Red River Parish. The sole issue presented for our determination is whether the absentee voting irregularities complained of render it impossible to determine the outcome of the election. In deciding this issue, we are called upon to determine whether we will apply strict compliance or substantial compliance to the absentee voting law. After a careful and thorough review of the record and study of the law, we conclude for reasons expressed below that we will apply the standard of substantial compliance to the absentee voting law, and that under this standard, one mail-in ballot and four personally hand-delivered ballots fail to substantially comply with the essential requirements of the absentee voting law and that those irregularities adversely affected the sanctity of the ballot and the integrity of the election making it impossible to determine the winner.
On November 20, 1999, a runoff election for Sheriff of Red River Parish was held between David G. Adkins ("Adkins") and Lester Shields "Buddy" Huckabay, III ("Huckabay"). A margin of three votes decided the election. Adkins received 2,246 votes while Huckabay received 2,249 votes. Of this total, Adkins received a majority of the votes cast at the polls on election day receiving 2,075 votes to Huckabay's 1,941. Huckabay, however, received a majority of the absentee votes receiving 308 to Adkins's 171. When the parish Board of Election Supervisors ("Board"), composed of Judith Huckabay (the Clerk of Court and wife of defendant Sheriff Huckabay),
This matter was tried in open court in December 1999, over the course of six days. The trial court,
The Court of Appeal, Second Circuit, reversed the judgment of the trial court and declared Huckabay the winner of the runoff election. In reversing the trial court, the appellate court concluded that Louisiana's absentee voting statutes, enacted pursuant to a constitutional mandate, should not be strictly construed. Instead, the court of appeal reasoned that where the electors have substantially complied with the absentee voting law and the irregularities complained of do not adversely affect the sanctity of the ballots or the integrity of the election, courts should not disenfranchise those electors. The court found that while there were irregularities in this case, they were unintentional and harmless. Thus, the court concluded that all the ballots the trial court disqualified, except two, substantially complied with the law. As for the two votes, the court pretermitted any discussion on them noting that because the margin of victory was three addressing these two votes was not necessary. Adkins v. Huckabay, 33,593, 749 So.2d 900, 909, 1999 La.App. LEXIS 3634, at *25-26 (La. App. 2 Cir. 12/23/99). We granted certiorari to consider the correctness of the court of appeal's judgment. Adkins v. Huckabay, 99-3605, 753 So.2d 222, 2000 La. LEXIS 198, at *1 (La.1/19/00).
LAW AND ANALYSIS
We begin our discussion by starting with whether Adkins or his representative
The defendants contend that Mr. Browne's "blanket challenge" was insufficient and that he should have individualized his challenges. The trial court found that Mr. Browne exercised due diligence in challenging all absentee ballots and expressed doubt that he had free access to the ballots as suggested by the defendants. Our review of the record clearly supports this finding. Mr. Browne testified that when he arrived at the courthouse, he was told that the mail-in absentee ballots were in one box and the walk-in absentee ballots were in another. He could not confirm this because he did not get to look at the ballots. Because of a concern regarding possible fraud with absentee ballots, Mr. Browne showed Mr. Lester a blank absentee envelope and pointed out that it clearly stated "Must be notarized or signed by two witnesses." He then told Mr. Lester that without the ballots being notarized or witnessed, the election would be left open to total fraud or corruption. When the Board began counting the ballots, Mr. Browne informed Mrs. Huckabay that he wanted to make some challenges. Mrs. Huckabay questioned on what grounds he was challenging. He stated that he was challenging the votes of Mrs. Sandra Kay Huckabay and John Henry McDonald on the grounds that they voted in person at the polls and absentee. Mrs. Huckabay responded that there were two John Henry McDonald's and discussed Sandra Huckabay's ballot. The opening of the absentee ballots then began again, at which point Mr. Browne again stated that he wanted to challenge all ballots not properly executed. He also stated that he was not allowed to look at any of the ballots Mrs. Huckabay was preparing for counting. As Mrs. Huckabay was separating the ballots, Mr. Lester noticed his wife's absentee ballot, which was not witnessed or notarized, and stated that if it was not counted there would be a lawsuit.
After some conversation regarding Mr. Browne's challenge, Mrs. Huckabay telephoned the Commissioner of Elections' office to seek advice. The Board then met and voted to reject forty-three mail-in absentee ballots, which had been chosen and separated from the other mail-in absentee ballots by Mrs. Huckabay and her two assistants that were facially invalid in that they were not properly executed, and to accept as valid all walk-in ballots. These forty-three absentee ballots were the only ballots Mr. Browne was allowed to see and count. Mr. Browne reurged his challenge to all remaining absentee ballots, mail-in and walk-in, not properly executed, which was denied. He then asked to see each ballot so he could make individual challenges, which was denied. The reason given by Mrs. Huckabay was that this was the way they had always done things, that they were going to continue to do things this way, and that they would be there all
Clearly, Mr. Browne as representative of Adkins timely challenged all the absentee ballots and exercised due diligence in that challenge. He was prevented by Mrs. Huckabay from making any further individual challenges. That the Board considered Mr. Browne's challenge sufficient to cover both walk-in and mail-in absentee ballots is evidenced by Mrs. Huckabay's call to the Commissioner of Elections and its vote on the challenge. The defendant's argument lacks merit and the trial court was not manifestly erroneous or clearly wrong finding the challenge sufficient.
The right of qualified citizens of Louisiana to vote and to have their votes counted, inherent in our republican form of government and the democratic process, is a fundamental and constitutionally protected right. As such, the Louisiana Constitution provides that "[e]very citizen of the state, upon reaching eighteen years of age, shall have the right to register and vote." LA. CONST. art. I, § 10(A); see also U.S. CONST. art. IV, § 4. To fulfil this right, the Constitution instructs the Legislature to "adopt an election code which shall provide for permanent registration of voters and for the conduct of all elections" and to "provide a method for absentee voting." LA. CONST. art. XI, §§ 1, 2. The constitutional grant of the right to vote along with a direction to establish a code, i.e., the rules, procedures, and methods to accomplish that right, in general language evidences an intent that the Legislature has broad powers to legislate the conduct, the when, where, and how, of the election process.
In keeping with this mandate, the Legislature established Chapter 7 of the Election Code delineating the provisions relative to absentee voting. In Louisiana, absentee voting is the process by which electors unable to vote in person at their polling place on election day cast a ballot by either (1) voting in person; or (2) voting by mail. La. R.S. 18:1307, :1309. Here, the Legislature has seen fit to prescribe the when, where, and how absentee voting is to take place. The tenor of that chapter clearly specifies those entitled to vote absentee and the procedures to be utilized when an elector is unable to personally vote at the polls on election day. A reading of those sections, expressing the exceptions and limitations, makes clear that absentee voting is not an absolute right. Instead, it is an exception to the traditional method of voting at the polls and is restricted to specifically enumerated situations and qualifications.
La. R.S. 18:1303(A) delineates which electors, who are otherwise qualified to vote, may vote absentee in person. It limits voting absentee in person to:
Even more restrictive, the Code provides that an otherwise qualified elector who expects to be out of the parish on election day, may vote absentee by mail only if he is:
The Election Code also establishes the rules and procedures for the preparation and distribution of absentee ballots. Important to this case, La. R.S. 18:1306 provides in pertinent part:
In keeping with the mandatory limitations on absentee voting imposed by the Legislature, the Code provides that an elector qualified to vote absentee by mail must make an application to the registrar by letter over his signature setting forth: (1) the election(s) for which he requests an absentee ballot; (2) the reason for his request to vote absentee and attaching any supporting documents required by law; (3) the address to which the absentee ballot(s) shall be sent; (4) his voting ward and precinct, if known; and (5) if the elector requests a ballot for a general election be sent in addition to a ballot for the primary, he shall declare in writing to the registrar that he will be eligible to vote absentee by mail in the general election. La. R.S. 18:1307. If the application does not meet these requirements, the registrar shall not send an absentee ballot to an applicant. La. R.S. 18:1307. The registrar must receive the elector's application not earlier than sixty days or later than ninety-six hours before the close of the polls for the election for which it is requested, and the date received shall be noted thereon.
The Code likewise specifies the rules and limitations for absentee application and voting absentee in person. Pertinent to the case at hand, the Election Code mandates that the qualified elector shall make his application and vote absentee in person from twelve days to six days prior to the election. La. R.S. 18:1309(A)(1) (emphasis added). Before being allowed to vote absentee in person, the registrar shall establish the elector's identity by requiring him to submit his current Louisiana driver's license, his current registration certificate, or other identification card. La. R.S. 18:1309(D). Then, the registrar shall hand to the qualified elector the ballot, ballot envelope, and the certificate provided in La. R.S. 18:1310(B), if needed. La. R.S. 18:1309(E)(2). The elector must sign the precinct register before executing the absentee ballot. La. R.S. 18:1309(E)(2). Then, the elector shall retire to a place within the area designated for the marking of ballots in secrecy and shall fill in the flap certificate and mark his ballot. La. R.S. 18:1309(E)(3). The elector must then fold his marked ballot and, without releasing it, the registrar shall detach the perforated slip from the ballot, after which the elector shall place it in the ballot envelope, seal it, and return it to the registrar or his deputy. La. R.S. 18:1309(E)(3). Before delivery of the precinct register to the parish custodian, the registrar shall enter the word "absentee" and the date of the election in the proper space on the precinct register for each qualified elector who voted absentee in person and absentee by mail whose ballot the registrar had received on or before the last day for voting absentee in person. La. R.S. 18:1309(G).
Regardless of whether the qualified elector receives his absentee ballot by mail or in person, the Code provides that the elector shall first fill in all blanks on the certificate on the ballot envelope flap, then mark the ballot according to the printed instructions on its face, then place the ballot in the envelope, seal the envelope, and sign the certificate on the ballot envelope flap. La. R.S. 18:1310(A). If the qualified elector is blind, physically handicapped, unable to read, or unable to write,
We must first determine whether the provisions of the Election Code establishing the rules, procedures, and methods for absentee voting should be strictly construed so as to void ballots failing to strictly comply with the statutory provisions of the law or whether substantial compliance with the essential requirements of the law suffices. Primary to our inquiry is ensuring and maintaining the sanctity of the ballot and the integrity of the election, and protecting against the needless disenfranchisement of electors.
Adkins maintains that the failure of those absentee electors to follow the mandatory language of the Election Code rendered their ballots invalid and should have precluded their inclusion in the official counting and tabulation of the runoff election. Huckabay, joined by the State, counters that as long as the electors substantially comply with the provisions of the Election Code and the irregularities do not affect the sanctity of the ballot or the integrity of the election, the failure of election officials to perform their ministerial duties cannot disenfranchise these absentee electors.
Absentee balloting, and the statutes governing them, have proved challenging to the courts. Often in election contests, our courts are faced with the frustrating problems of irregularities in the absentee voting process caused by human errors that are not in compliance with precise statutory language. In most instances, fraud is not involved. The irregularities may be caused by sloppy practices and customs, a failure to understand the statutorily prescribed methods and procedures, or for any number of reasons that amount to good-faith inadvertencies. Although fraud may not be involved, the inquiry does not end. The courts are still faced with balancing the irregularities with statutory requirements so as not to unjustly disenfranchise an elector, to the extent that such tolerance of irregularities will not lead to a manipulation of an election or affect the integrity of an election or the sanctity of the ballot. The trial court wisely pointed out in his oral reasons for judgment the problems inherent in absentee voting: "[A]bsentee voting procedure is fraught with potential for abuse if the law and the procedure is [sic] not followed carefully, because it is hard to tell what happens sometimes." We are impressed with these noteworthy comments from the trier of fact who is not disadvantaged by the review of a cold record and who is in a superior position to observe the nuances of demeanor evidence not revealed in a record. Indeed, absentee voting is a critical area of concern because more often than not close elections, like the election at issue, are determined by the absentee votes and the margin for non-fraudulent human error in absentee voting is great.
We have researched this issue throughout the nation and see a split of authority among the states on how courts construe absentee voting statutes. Some states conclude that absentee voting statues must be strictly construed. See, e.g., Taylor v. Cox, 710 So.2d 406, 407 (Ala.1998) (holding that the language "shall be manually signed by the applicant" clearly meant that the elector must himself sign the application for absentee ballot form); Lewis v. Griffith, 664 So.2d 177 (Miss.1995) (holding that Mississippi requires strict compliance with the absentee ballot statutes); Tiller v. Martinez, 974 S.W.2d 769 (Tx.Ct.App. 4
The majority of states, however, have concluded that the absentee voting laws should be liberally construed in aid of the right to vote. Thus, it has been held that where there has been substantial compliance with the provisions of the absentee voting laws and a free expression of the electors' will, courts will not nullify votes such that the electors are disenfranchised. See, e.g., Erickson v. Blair, 670 P.2d 749, 755 (Co.1983) (rejecting the rule of strict compliance and adopting a standard of substantial compliance); McCavitt v. Registrars of Voters of Brockton, 385 Mass. 833, 434 N.E.2d 620, 623 (1982) (holding that unless the elector substantially fails to comply with the absentee voting laws his absentee ballot must be counted); Beckstrom v. Volusia County Canvassing Bd., 707 So.2d 720, 724-25 (Fla.1998) (confirming that substantial compliance with the absentee voting law is all that is required to give legality to the ballot); Cure v. Board of County Commissioners, 263 Kan. 779, 952 P.2d 920, 923 (1998) (holding that a substantial compliance with the law regulating the conduct of elections is sufficient, and when the election has been held and the will of the electors has been manifested thereby, courts should uphold the election although there may have been attendant informalities and in some respects a failure to comply with statutory requirements); Eubanks v. Hale, 752 So.2d 1113, 1999 Ala. LEXIS 306, at *44 (Ala.1999) (affirming its adherence to the substantial compliance rule).
A review of our case law reveals that while election cases have proven difficult, we have been almost unanimous in the standard to which we hold electors and election officials. For example, in Hendry v. Democratic Executive Comm., 128 La. 465, 54 So. 943, 943 (1911), we held that, where the law required that the elector "shall" designate his choice by stamping or marking to the right of the name of the candidate on his ballot, a ballot stamped on the left side was invalid. In reaching this conclusion we noted that "form is sacramental" and stated that "[w]hile the intent of the voter is material in determining the validity and effect of ballots, yet such intent, in order to be effectuated, must be expressed conformably to the imperative requirements of the law."
In Hart v. Picou, the issue was whether the failure to print and use ballots with numbered and detachable slips as required by law required the voiding of the election. 147 La. 1017, 86 So. 479, 479 (1920). There, because of error attributable only to election officials, ballots were printed that did not strictly comply with the mandatory provision of the law, i.e., the ballots were not numbered and did not have a detachable slip. In evaluating this provision, we noted that among its purposes was to ensure secrecy in the ballot and to guard against the possibility of fraud. Considering this, we concluded that the provisions were not merely directory or that the failure to observe it must be accompanied by some proof of fraud. Instead, we held that these provisions were mandatory and the failure to observe them rendered those ballots illegal and the entire election void. Id. at 480.
In regard to absentee voting law, where an elector obtained an absentee ballot from the printer instead of from the clerk of court as required by law, we concluded that the ballot should be rejected and not counted. Vidrine v. Eldred, 153 La. 779, 96 So. 566, 568 (1923). There was no question that the elector was a qualified
In Duncan v. Vernon Parish. Sch. Bd., 226 La. 379, 76 So.2d 403 (1954), the election was contested on irregularities including: (1) that the list of voters furnished by the registrar of voters to the commissioners of election contained many omissions and errors; (2) that the commissioners were not sworn as provided by law; (3) that the election polls remained open after the hour fixed for closing; (4) that no voting booths were provided for the voters and there was no opportunity for electors to prepare their ballots in secrecy; and (5) that forty-eight ballots were prepared and signed for the voters by other persons. There was no allegation that these forty-eight votes could have changed the outcome of the election or allegation of fraud. In affirming the election, we noted that the plaintiff had failed to show that these irregularities "deprived the electors of votes sufficient in number to have changed the result of the election" and that in "the absence of such allegations the election will not be set aside solely because of the failure of some ministerial officer to perform some duty imposed upon him or to follow every formal direction prescribed by law." Id. at 404.
In Smith v. Washington Parish Democratic Comm., 239 La. 827, 120 So.2d 257 (1960), we were faced with an election contest with a margin of victory of 136 votes. Here, the plaintiff based his case upon the contention that where the commissioners of the election failed to perform any of their ministerial duties such as entering of dates, signing the registration certificate after the elector, or filling in all of the poll lists properly, the election must be annulled if the number of votes where these oversights occur exceeds the difference in the vote between the two candidates. We disagreed and concluded that "in the absence of fraud, mere failure of election officials to perform a ministerial duty will not warrant the setting aside of the election." Id. at 260. We also stated that "to contest an election, not only specific frauds or irregularities must be alleged, but it must also be shown that the frauds or irregularities charged did in fact alter the result." Id. at 261. Having found only three votes that should not have been counted, we affirmed the dismissal of plaintiffs case. Id. at 262.
In Johnson v. Sewerage Dist. No. 2 of Caddo Parish, 239 La. 840, 120 So.2d 262, 270-71 (1960), this Court disposed of a multitude of alleged ministerial irregularities ranging from swearing in of commissioners to the canvassing of the returns wherein we stated "in the absence of fraud, corruption or proof that the irregularities complained of would have changed the result of the election, the election will not be set aside solely because of the failure of some ministerial officer to perform every formal direction prescribed by law." In reasoning what degree of compliance the electorate should be made to follow we quoted "`the election laws of the state must, of course, be observed with some degree of reasonableness; but it was never in contemplation that the carelessness or ignorance of election officials should afford the means of defeating the will of the people in the exercise of their highest prerogative.'" Id. at 271 (quoting Bradford v. Grant Parish Sch. Bd., 154 La. 242, 97 So. 430, 431 (1923)). Finding the law and facts contrary to plaintiff's contention, we affirmed the election.
Finally, in Garrison v. Connick, 291 So.2d 778, 781 (La.1974), the parties were candidates for Orleans Parish District Attorney in the Democratic primary election. Plaintiff received 62,731 votes to defendant's
A review of the jurisprudence makes clear that almost without exception this Court has never required strict compliance with our election laws. Both interpretations have their inherent strengths and weaknesses. The weaknesses in strict compliance, however, are too unforgiving, attendant with harsh consequences. More often than not, electors would be unreasonably disenfranchised necessitating setting aside elections more frequently for the slightest good-faith error. The same objectives can be accomplished with substantial compliance which means actual compliance with respect to the provisions essential to the reasonable objectives of the absentee voting law. After having fully weighed both, we conclude that, in the absence of legislative direction to the contrary, Louisiana's absentee voting law does not require strict compliance. We find substantial compliance a more just and reasonable approach in resolving the problems posed by irregularities in absentee voting. Thus, in the absence of fraud, undue influence, or intentional wrongdoing, an absentee ballot must be counted unless there is a substantial failure to comply with the essential requirements of the absentee voting law and that irregularity adversely affects the sanctity of the ballot and the integrity of the election.
We hasten to add, however, that courts are not powerless to overturn elections where irregularities are present. See La. R.S. 18:1432. Absentee voting should be done in conformity with the Election Code as such statutes are not designed to ensure a vote but rather to permit a vote by a statutorily limited and prescribed method. We will not sanction irregularities that circumvent the plain purpose of the law and open the door to the possibility of manipulation of elections. Nonetheless, whether an irregularity substantially complies with an essential provision depends on the intimacy of the relation between the provision and the general purpose it serves to accomplish, the nature and extent of the departure, and whether violence will be done to the legislative scheme. The substantial compliance standard, more often than not, preserves the enfranchisement of qualified electors who are unable to attend the polling place on election day for specified reasons, preserves secrecy of the ballot, prevents fraud, undue influence, and intentional
MAIL-IN ABSENTEE BALLOTS
Josie Mae Fowler
Mrs. Fowler, a qualified voter, timely requested, cast, and returned a mail-in absentee ballot. It bore her signature, but lacked the signature of either a notary or two witnesses as required by La. R.S. 18:1310.
The Board, after phoning the Commissioner of Elections' office, voted to exclude all mail-in absentee ballots that were not properly executed. Through error, the Board did not exclude this ballot and counted its votes. The trial court concluded this ballot was erroneously counted as it bore the same irregularity as the forty-three votes the Board voted to disqualify. The court of appeal pretermitted any discussion on this vote. Allowing this ballot to be counted for the same violation as the forty-three ballots the Board voted to exclude would be to enfranchise Mrs. Fowler and disenfranchise forty-three electors for the same violation. Thus, we find the trial court correctly disqualified this vote.
THE "4" HAND-DELIVERED VOTES
In paragraph six of Adkins' original petition, he contested the validity of the votes of Elvie Robinson, Claude Pate, Martin Green, and Jocille Kellogg. Before any ballots were personally hand delivered, the record shows that on November 18, 1999, Ms. Kile was engaged in a conversation, unrelated to any official law-enforcement business, by Sheriff Huckabay and Chief Deputy Warren Perkins in her office. She testified that Sheriff Huckabay stated to her that several people were not getting their mailed absentee ballots and that there was going to be a lawsuit filed. As a result of this conversation, she stated that she delivered absentee ballots to at least these four electors.
The parties stipulated that on November 18, 1999, Ms. Kile drove to the homes of these four electors and personally hand delivered absentee ballots to them. Mr. Green and Ms. Pate voted in Ms. Kile's presence and Ms. Kile kept these ballots overnight in her car and then showed the ballots as voted on November 19, 1999, by executing the "flap" portions of the ballots. With respect to Ms. Pate's ballot, she did not make a request for the November 20
In resolving how to address the irregularities in these four challenged ballots, we are unable to apply the absentee voting requirements provided by law as these ballots do not qualify as either in-person or mail-in absentee ballots under the Election Code. Without going into the detailed deficiencies on each ballot, the primary irregularity that disqualifies these votes is that these four ballots were personally hand delivered to the electors by the registrar of voters after the deadline had passed for either statutory provision. There simply is no provision in law for this occurrence.
We note that none of the electors who were personally hand delivered these ballots contacted the Registrar's office on this day and questioned the whereabouts of their mailed absentee ballots; instead, this action was taken only at the behest and insistence of one of the candidates, Sheriff Huckabay, under the threat of a lawsuit.
Other than declarations by Ms. Kile, there is not a record of the occurrences involved in these ballots and certainly
Clearly, the hybrid procedure employed by Ms. Kile falls outside the law. We will not allow the Election Code to be set aside and new procedures innovated, albeit in good faith, to cover errors of omission or commission, or to accommodate an eager candidate or elector. The line is drawn at substantial compliance with the positive law. We are unable to balance these irregularities with the statutory requirements because there is no positive law for reference. A tolerance of such deviations from legal requirements could lead to a manipulation of elections, and affect the integrity of an election and the sanctity of the ballot. These four votes must be disqualified. Thus, we find the trial court correctly disqualified these four votes and will reinstate its ruling.
While the court of appeal applied the substantial compliance standard to the irregularities at issue in this election contest, with which we agree, we find that it erred in its application of this standard by concluding that the contested ballots did substantially comply with the essential provisions of the Election Code finding that they were simply good faith, unintentional errors. Although fraud was not involved, the court must still analyze the irregularities with statutory requirements so as not to unjustly disenfranchise an elector, to the extent that such tolerance of the irregularities will not lead to a manipulation of an election or affect the integrity of an election or the sanctity of the ballot. A good faith finding does not supplant substantial compliance as the standard; regardless, there still must be substantial compliance with the essential provisions of the Election Code. We find that in applying substantial compliance to five of these irregularities, the trial court correctly vacated the general election and set it aside. We will reinstate its judgment.
We conclude that the votes of Josie Mae Fowler, Elvie Robinson, Claude Pate, Martin Green, and Jocille Kellogg failed to substantially comply with the essential provisions of the absentee voting law.
Accordingly, for the foregoing reasons, the judgment of the court of appeal is hereby reversed and set aside. The judgment of the trial court setting aside and vacating the results of the general election held on November 20, 1999, is hereby reinstated.
VICTORY, J., concurs.
LEMMON, J., concurs and assigns reasons.
JOHNSON, J., subscribes to the opinion and assigns additional concurring reasons.
MARCUS and KIMBALL, JJ., dissent and assign reasons.
LEMMON, J., Concurring.
I agree with the majority that challenges to absentee votes should be judged on the basis of standard of substantial compliance with the statutes. I also agree that the majority properly disqualified the
La.Rev.Stat. 18:1307 requires a person, who is qualified to vote by mail and desires to do so, to make application to the registrar of voters by a letter, over the voter's signatures, that may be delivered to the registrar by any means. Such an application must set forth certain information and must be received by the registrar not later than ninety-six hours before the close of the polls for the election (in this case, not later than 8:00 p.m. on Tuesday, November 16, 1999).
I disagree with the theory of the trial court, apparently adopted by the majority of this court, that the registrar, after mailing a ballot to a voter in response to a timely and otherwise proper application to vote by mail and after being notified that the voter has not received the ballot,
Claude Pate requested a ballot to vote by mail in the primary election only; she never made a written request to vote by mail in the general election. Therefore, even though Pate's relative made a telephone request of the registrar for a general election ballot, the ballot that she received and voted cannot be counted, not because the registrar hand-delivered the ballot, but because the voter did not make a written request that included the information required by La.Rev.Stat. 18:1307 A.
Elvie Robinson, who was homebound, requested a ballot to vote by mail in the primary election only; although the Code permits a voter to request a mail-in ballot for the general election at the same time that the voter requests a primary election ballot, Robinson did not do so. Nevertheless, the registrar also mailed her a ballot on November 9 for the November 20 general election, but the ballot contained the wrong police jury district, and Robinson's son returned the incorrect ballot. Because there was insufficient time to mail Robinson a correct ballot, the registrar hand-delivered
The court of appeal reasoned that Robinson's vote was valid because Robinson likely would have requested a general election ballot if the registrar had not already sent her one by mistake. The court of appeal bolstered that conclusion by noting that "Ms. Robinson's return of the improper ballots may be viewed a request for an absentee ballot for the general election, and any untimeliness of that request is minimized by the fact that the whole situation was the fault of the registrar and not of Ms. Robinson." 33,593 at p. 13 (La. App.2d Cir.12/23/99), 749 So.2d 900.
I would agree with the court of appeal that Robinson's return of the improper ballot might be viewed under appropriate circumstances as a request for a general election ballot. However, there were several deficiencies.
First, the Code requires a written request, and an unwritten, implied request is not sufficient. This record contains no evidence of a writing over Robinson's signature, as required by La.Rev.Stat. 18:1307 A, that can be construed as an application to vote by mail. Moreover, the implied "application," based on the return of the improper ballot, does not contain any of the other information required by Section 1307 A, and Section 1307 E prohibits the registrar from "send[ing] an absentee ballot to an applicant whose application for an absentee ballot does not meet the requirements of Subsection A of this Section." Finally, it does not appear that the implied "application" was received by the registrar before 8:00 p.m. on November 16, the deadline for making a request to vote by mail.
In addition to these deficiencies, I distinguish Pate's and Robinson's votes from those of Jocille Kellogg
As to Robinson, the dissenters and I disagree because, as I understand their position, the registrar's gratuitously sending her a general election ballot misled her into not making a timely written application. I disagree because Robinson had every opportunity under the Code to request a general election ballot along with her request for a special election ballot. She did not request a general election ballot then and still had not done so when
In summary, Robinson's absentee ballot did not substantially comply with the Code and was properly disqualified because of her own inaction, which was not substantially affected by any action or inaction on the part of the registrar.
When the votes of Fowler, Pate and Robinson are disqualified, one cannot determine the result of the general election, and a new election must be held.
JOHNSON, J., Concurring.
I agree with the conclusion reached by the majority that it is impossible to determine the results of this runoff election, and because of this impossibility a new general election should be held between the candidates. I write separately to express my views on the application of La.Rev.Stat. Ann. 18:1432(A).
Since the adoption of our current Election Code, this Court has addressed the application of La.Rev.Stat. Ann. 18:1432(A) on two occasions. First, in Kelly v. Village of Greenwood, 363 So.2d 887 (La.1978), and most recently in, Savage v. Edwards, 98-2929 (La.12/18/98), 722 So.2d 1004. In Kelly, we determined that the statutory scheme in La.Rev.Stat. Ann. 18:1432 was in accord with the pre-election code jurisprudence which provided an alternative for candidates who could not prove that "but for" the irregularity he would have been elected. Under the pre-election code jurisprudence, it was recognized that "if the Court finds the proven frauds and irregularities are of such a serious nature as to deprive the voters of the free expression of their will, it will decree the nullity of the entire election—even though the contestant might not be able to prove that he would have been nominated but for such fraud and irregularities." Garrison v. Connick, 291 So.2d 778, 781 (La.1974), quoting, Dowling v. Orleans Parish Democratic Comm., 235 La. 62, 102 So.2d 755 (1958).
Savage presented an opportunity for this Court to provide clear guidance to the lower courts on when an election may be declared void under La.Rev.Stat. Ann. 18:1432(A). Instead of seizing this opportunity to give direction to trial courts faced with fraud or irregularities, the Court relied on numerical calculations and concluded that "the number of votes proven to have been cast illegally or fraudulently was not sufficient to change the result of the election." Savage, 722 So.2d at 1004. While the case at hand presents the situation where the number of proven irregularities exceeds the margin of victory, I am still of the opinion that a trial judge is not limited to strictly numerical considerations in declaring an election void. See id. at 1007 (Johnson, J., dissenting). In determining whether to declare an election void under La.Rev.Stat. Ann. 18:1432(A), a judge can and should consider whether the proven frauds or irregularities are of such a serious nature so as to deprive the voters of the free expression of their will.
While the Louisiana Election Code provides no procedure for the disqualification of local election supervisors (Registrars of Voters, Clerks of Court, etc.), prudence would dictate that the State Commissioner of Elections, the State Board of Election Supervisors, or the Secretary of State provide some monitoring of the new general election ordered by this Court. A system of monitoring would ensure that the irregularities found in the prior election and the potential ethical conflicts created by the relationship between the Clerk of Court and one of the candidates (husband and wife) do not impact the new election.
MARCUS, Justice (dissenting).
In my view, the irregularities in the absentee voting did not rise to the level requiring the election to be set aside. I find substantial compliance with the law.
KIMBALL, J., Dissenting.
I agree with the sentiments expressed in Justice Lemmon's concurring opinion that hand delivery of absentee ballots by a registrar of voters should not automatically invalidate an otherwise validly executed ballot. I dissent, however, because I also find that the votes of Ms. Elvie Robinson and Mrs. Claude Pate were executed in substantial compliance with the Election Code. In my view, the controversy surrounding their votes was caused by an erroneous interpretation of the Election Code by the registrar of voters. In the absence of fraud, an error on the part of the registrar should not cause Mrs. Pate or Ms. Robinson, a homebound voter, to suffer the loss of having their otherwise valid votes not counted. The trial court specifically found there was no fraud in this election and, in my opinion, the requirement of substantial compliance has been met. I would therefore affirm the decision of the court of appeal and allow this election to stand.
(R. Vol. 5, at 859-60) (emphasis added).
I agree with the court of appeal that the registrar's action in hand-delivering a properly and timely requested ballot, under the circumstances, did not affect the sanctity of the ballot or the integrity of the election. As that court noted, the registrar was attempting to rectify a mistake attributable to someone other than Kellogg and to permit Kellogg to exercise her constitutional right to vote in accordance with her proper and timely request.
While it was unwise for the registrar to remain at Green's home while he voted and to take the ballot back to her office and mark it as voted the next day, the registrar acted in good faith, and her actions should not redound to the detriment of the voter who properly and timely requested a ballot and then voted it properly.