Nearly 300 pages of emails obtained by WWL-TV through a public records request seem to indicate the scheduling snafu was an honest mistake.
NEW ORLEANS — In mid-August, Louisiana elections officials delayed the scheduled maintenance of the state’s voter registration website from Sept. 8 to Sept. 22, apparently never noticing the move would shut down the site for hours on National Voter Registration Day and cause a political firestorm.
Nearly 300 pages of public Secretary of State’s Office emails obtained by WWL-TV through a public records request seem to indicate the scheduling snafu was an honest mistake by election officials who were focused on the Aug. 15 municipal elections and an especially challenging election season.
“The 2020 election cycle presented unprecedented challenges to our state, including a global pandemic and two hurricanes,” Secretary of State spokesman Tyler Brey said. “Despite a strained staff, the July and August elections were conducted without incident or error, and the presidential election is being administered with the same level of excellence Louisiana voters have come to expect.”
But Democrats expressed suspicion about the motives of the Republican secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin. GOP legislators had pressed Ardoin this summer to make his emergency election plan more restrictive in November than it had been for the primaries and municipal elections.
And the optics of shutting down access to the voter registration site from 8:00 to 11:30 p.m. on National Voter Registration Day prompted national coverage from the likes of Newsweek and anger on social media from voters and Democratic politicians.
New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell called it “beyond reprehensible” on Facebook. Rep. Royce Duplessis tweeted “This is an absolute disgrace!” One voter filed a comment on the Secretary of State’s online feedback form saying, “You people should be ashamed.”
At 11:30 p.m. on Sept. 22, just as the site was coming back online, Commissioner of Elections Sherri Hadskey emailed Ardoin and other officials to alert them to the anger on social media.
“I am going to draft a plan for (computer system) updates to try and help us prevent this in the future,” she wrote. The next day, First Assistant Secretary of State Nancy Landry issued Policy No. 58, laying out a new approval process for scheduled maintenance and website updates, and requiring them to be conducted overnight, when the site is not used as much.
Hadskey is a political appointee, but has served in the Elections Division for 40 years, Brey said. She received an email on Aug. 13 from an IT staffer notifying her that the computer system needed a major update on Sept. 8, but Hadskey said that wouldn’t work because her staff would be programming the November election that day.
The IT staffer responded on Aug. 14, the day before the municipal elections, resetting the update for Sept. 22 at 8 p.m.
Over the next several weeks, Hadskey and other elections officials exchanged emails with parish registrars of voters, Louisiana State University and even a Facebook employee about how best to reach out to the public to promote National Voter Registration Day, Voter Education Week and the state’s GeauxVote website.
There’s no further mention in the emails about the planned website maintenance until it was already happening the evening of Sept. 22.
Early the next morning, Ardoin showed his frustration, emailing this to three members of the IT staff: “Thought you all might like to see what I will be dealing with.”
A few hours later, Ardoin fell on the sword, emailing legislators to apologize.
“This scheduled maintenance was required to ensure our continued cybersecurity posture and to prepare for the heavy traffic we expect between now and Election Day,” Ardoin wrote. “However, I take responsibility for the fact that this was done on National Voter Registration Day.”
But Democratic lawmakers didn’t believe it. Rep. Ted James, D-Baton Rouge, wrote back: “I’m not buying this BS.”
Sen. Katrina Jackson, D-Baton Rouge, later wrote she had called the Secretary of State’s Office, “and just a mistake they say(.) (Shake my head.) I can’t with them for real.”
The House and Governmental Affairs Committee sent an email requesting details about the maintenance. James, a member of the committee, said Thursday they asked when the maintenance was first scheduled and how often the technology work is done, but never received that information.
When WWL-TV informed James what the emails showed, he said he felt somewhat better about Ardoin’s claim that it wasn’t intentional.
“That makes me feel a little bit better, but it is still a huge lapse in judgment, knowing that’s the same day as National Voter Registration Day and being coupled with other things that I view as attempts to, if not suppress, at least limit opportunities for voters to cast their vote,” James said.
Pollster and election analyst Ron Faucheux said he’s never seen so much suspicion and concern about voter suppression. And that’s why even the perception of dishonesty can set off such a firestorm, he said.
“Election officials need to be very, very careful what they do is not only honest, but appears honest, is honest and is transparently honest,” Faucheux said.