District A dispute headed for CourtDec 5th, 2011 | By William Dilella | Category: Top Story
Councilman Ray Lauga and former runoff challenger Peter Rupp were only seperated by 16 votes in the race for the District A seat. Rupp has said that due to outside voter influence, that election result is up for debate. Now Rupp has filed to bring that debate to Court.
(Note: The hearing for this case was scheduled for Thursday, December 1 at 12:34 p.m. in Judge Manuel “Manny” Fernandez’s courtroom, Division B, of the 34th Judicial District Court, which occurred after The St. Bernard Voice’s press deadline.)
Rupp’s Petition to Contest Election is based on alleged reports of voters with homestead exemptions in other parishes participating in the St. Bernard election, which could have caused a major difference in the close race for District A (Lauga with 986 to Rupp’s 970 votes).
“[Rupp] alleges that, except for substantial irregularities, error, or other unlawful activities in the conduct of the election for St. Bernard Parish Council District ‘A’ of that date, he would have been elected,” the petition argues.
However, those reports of outside voters were acknowledged by the local Election Board even before the vote took place. That board stated that the thousand or more voters parish-wide, not living within their respective districts, had the right to participate in this election through the displaced voter law.
That law, under Louisiana statute RS 18: 101 section F, covers residents—including those from St. Bernard—who were forced out of their homes, in this case by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. Under the law, these citizens are allowed to still take part in local governance of their true home parish, even with an address outside of that voting district. However, that law outlines that when the resident files for homestead exemption for new property, they should register to vote in that area.
The petition challenges the qualifications of forty-four, thus far unnamed, St. Bernard voters from District A.
Since the election, Rupp has filed with the 34th Judicial District Court. Named in the petition were Councilman Lauga, Registrar Velma Bourg, and Louisiana Secretary of State Tom Schedler.
“Mr. Rupp respectfully requests that this Honorable Court render a final judgement declaring the November 19, 2011 election for St. Bernard Parish Councilman for District ‘A’ void and ordering a new election for Mr. Rupp and Mr. Lauga,” the petition says. “[Or] render a final judgement ordering a restricted election for St. Bernard Parish Councilman for District ‘A,’ specifying the date of the election, for Mr. Rupp and Mr. Lauga, and indicating which voters will be eligible.”
“This isn’t so much about me winning,” Rupp said following the election, when he first announced that he would pursue legal options. “We hold another election, I may not win. But this is about 1,000 voters [either for me, or against me] whose vote could have been nullified by a few outside votes.”
Councilman Lauga said, after reviewing the petition served to him on November 28, that no specific voter names are mentioned. Lauga also noted that he was cited in the documents solely for his part as a candidate in the election.
“I’ve never committed voter fraud,” Lauga said. “And I’m only in the paperwork as a candidate.”
“It is interesting that, when they had the primary, and [Rupp] only won that by like 50 votes, he had no problem with voters then,” Lauga said.
Registrar of Voters
The petition has also cited the St. Bernard Registrar of Voters, Velma Bourg, accusing the Registrar of being derelict in her duty, by allowing these voters in the election.
“Upon information and belief, Ms. Bourg did not conduct the annual canvas in accordance [with Louisiana law],” the petition states. “Had she done her duty as Registrar of Voters, Ms. Bourg would have identified the estimated 50 voters who claimed a homestead exemption outside St. Bernard Parish.”
Rupp and his attorneys—Kurt Garcia and Marion Floyd of Kenner—further state that Bourg’s alleged failure to canvas the area, and allowing these voters, amounts to willful misconduct.
Bourg was also served with the petition earlier this week, complete with all of Rupp’s allegations, and responded to Rupp’s accusations that her office was complacent in the fact that voters with homestead exemptions elsewhere were allowed to vote in St. Bernard.
Bourg said it was her understanding that the votes were no longer being contested.
“That was the decision that was made,” Bourg said. “And it has been said to have been a failure by the legislature.”
“I guess they say that it is fraudulent, but I do my canvas every year and I actually canvas every day,” Bourg continued.
The Registrar cited that her and her office regularly updates the registrar by canvasing—or physically scouting—the parish more than once a year, as required by law. Bourg also said that the voter list is updated on a continuous basis through incoming data on resident deaths and felony convictions, and sees no grounds for the accusations.
“I don’t see how [Rupp] can say I’m not canvasing,” Bourg said.
Rupp said that the only reason he is pursuing this case in Court is to preserve the validity of voting laws and show that the process had not suffered any undue influences.
“We ignore those laws, and we taint that process,” Rupp said. “And the next time we go out and say every vote counts, we’re lying.”
The petition also alleges that Rupp attempted to contact Bourg before about the forty-four voters, and states that Bourg suggested the suit following the election.
However, it is rare that a Court favors overturning an election.
The last race that was overturned in the area stemmed from the 1976 primary election of Richard Tonry. James Moreau, Tonry’s opponent, filed a suit after alleging fraud in the Democratic primary for the House of Representatives election, on the basis of 43 forged signatures and 315 more voters taking part in the election than had signed in at polling places. It was after that where the Courts overturned and later upheld overturning the results.
In the State Supreme Court’s decision, Judges cited the difficulty of contesting election results, even within existing Louisiana law.
“Even if the number of “irregularities” exceeds difference in votes between candidates, [a] candidate seeking to nullify [an] election must prove either that he would have been elected but for irregularities or fraud or that proven frauds and irregularities are of such a serious nature that voters have been deprived of free expression of their will,” said the 1977 Supreme Court decision, citing Louisiana statute 18: 364 (B).
The District A seat contest started long before the petition. In one of the most competitive Council seat races in 2011’s election, the race started with five candidates—Jason R. Danna, Ray Lauga, Dennis Melancon, Deborah Rosenberger and Rupp. Following the October 22 primary, Lauga and Rupp moved on to the run-off race on November 19. Former opponents Rosenberger, who only had 52 votes less than Rupp in the primary, and Melancon both endorsed Rupp heading into November 19 election. Lauga has served on the Council since 2008.