Lafayette public schools pause campus voter drives

This fall, Lafayette’s chapter of the League of Women Voters did not spend the run-up to the midterm elections registering students to vote, a service it’s provided for years. 

Public school officials blocked the League’s access to campuses while waiting for the secretary of state to determine if the 100-year-old voting advocacy organization is “nonpartisan,” per the requirements of a new state law. 

Lafayette League members worry the question of their nonpartisanship, left up to a political figure in a polarized climate, may not be judged fairly. 

“We do want to defend that there is this idea of nonpartisan groups,” says M. Christian Green, vice president of the state League. “It’s such a polarized political environment that the Louisiana political system doesn’t have a space for us and what we can do.”

The League’s origins date to the passing of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which gave women the right to vote. Lafayette’s chapter was founded in 1945. The organization has run voter registration drives for Lafayette high schoolers of voting age for a decade. Now, that’s been put on hold. 

Officials with the Lafayette Parish School System notified the League of the halt in September, after League member Ola Prejean requested access to schools in anticipation of National Voter Registration Day on Sept. 20. 

In its response to Prejean’s request, LPSS cited Act 624, passed earlier this year. 

The legislation requires all public high schools in Louisiana to facilitate opportunities for eligible students to register to vote. It also stipulates that schools cannot “allow the involvement of any political or partisan group or organization in the registration process.” Since 2021, similar laws have been adopted in Republican-led states that target voter advocacy organizations conducting voter registration.

The “political or partisan group” clause ensnared the League’s tradition of fall voter registration drives in Lafayette. School officials say their intent isn’t to single out the League, but to make sure the school system is complying with the law. The school board voted Oct. 12 to request that the secretary of state verify the League’s status.

“What we wanted the secretary of state to do was confirm for us what we all know is true, that the League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization,” says school board member Justin Centanni. 

LPSS plans to adopt a new policy on how to provide a voter registration opportunity to students, but it is not a top priority, he says. 

“We’re probably not too under the gun on it at this time,” Centanni says. “I would certainly anticipate in the next few months that we’d have something on our agenda.”

League members say it shouldn’t be up to the secretary of state, currently Kyle Ardoin, a Republican. They believe it’s beyond his office’s purview. 

“Nonpartisan status is determined by the IRS, not the secretary of state, not the school board,” Green says. 

The League is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Its status as a nonpartisan organization is required and determined by the Internal Revenue Service, she says. The League maintains that imprimatur makes it unnecessary to question its status as a nonpartisan actor, and members worry the secretary of state’s political leanings could influence the outcome. 

At the national level, Republicans have argued that the voter advocacy group has strayed away its original values and become a plainly progressive organization. 

The League has been outspoken on gun control and campaign finance reform and called President Donald Trump a “tyrannical despot” after the Jan. 6 riot. In 2018, the national League’s CEO was arrested while protesting against the appointment of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. The organization has criticized Democrats for falling short on voting rights issues, too. 

In 2021, Kansas Republicans passed a law that stopped the state’s League from participating in voter registration. Similar laws were proposed in Florida and Ohio.

Voter registration is a bedrock activity for the League’s members, says Kathleen Espinoza, a board member of the Lafayette chapter. They see it as an essential service in expanding the civic lives of students. And, as a nonpartisan organization, they do not tell students how to vote, she says. 

The group’s drives offer an accessible and free method of voter registration. Otherwise, students face some barriers to registration. They can register when they get drivers licenses, but that takes time and money. They can also register at the parish courthouse. That’s difficult to do without a car. Those barriers make the League’s drives important, Espinoza says. 

“There’s like our bread-and-butter issues, one of those is participating in voter registration drives and to try to expand access to the ballot,” Espinoza says. 

She pushes back against criticism that the organization’s policy positions constitute partisanship. Further, members have a right to their personal political beliefs and can voice them as long as they are not claiming to represent the League or while hosting League events. 

“The League does take policy positions; we’re not taking policy positions in a partisan vacuum, we study it and form consensus,” Espinoza says. “I wouldn’t call that political, I would call that educating ourselves.”

Espinoza met with LPSS Assistant Superintendent Mark Rabalais in early October. She says Rabalais told her the school system was only acting as it thinks the future policy of LPSS will be written — a no-outside-groups approach. League members say that means leaving out a group with a long history of providing that service. 

“It is a mandate from the state that you have to provide an opportunity for students to register to vote,” Espinoza says. “We’re this community group that has a lot of experience doing it.” 

Rabalais did not respond to requests for comment. 

The League does support Act 624 in part, Espinoza says. And she believes requiring schools to offer voter registration to students is a step in the right direction. She also understands why the state would not want partisan or political organizations to be involved in the process. But she worries a heavy-handed approach can bar all organizations and leave overworked school counselors to shoulder the burden.

Other League chapters in Louisiana aren’t facing the same confirmation process, according to Green. But she believes Lafayette may be a bellwether for the rest of the state’s public schools. 

“We don’t want them to get shut down because of questions being raised at the school board in Lafayette,” Green says. 

Without the help of outside organizations like the League, members worry that overworked school employees will struggle to keep up.

“If Lafayette couldn’t get its act together, what’s being done in Avoyelles or Evangeline? Are they doing registration at all?” Green asks. 

LPSS has temporary measures in place, Centanni says. Currently, the school is providing students with laptops if they wish to register. But that falls short of the League’s prior role of raising awareness and advocating for civic engagement. If the secretary of state certifies the League as nonpartisan, school officials plan to continue their partnership. 

“Right now, having counselors do it is not a significant amount of work, [but] it could turn out to be a significant amount of work come springtime,” Centanni says. 

Should the secretary of state determine the League to be partisan, litigation is likely, Green says, but she hopes it doesn’t come to that: “I don’t like to threaten that idly, but our national organization is keeping an eye on it.”

Because politics have become so polarized, the idea of nonpartisanship may become foreign, worries Green and others working to encourage participation in democracy.

“What we do is important,” Green notes, “not only registering a student to vote but indicating that there are groups of adults that care about their civic life.”