BATON ROUGE, LA (WAFB) - With less than a month left before election day on November 6, five secretary of state candidates explained how they will secure your vote to the Baton Rouge Press Club Monday.
There are nine candidates running to finish the term of Tom Schedler, who resigned amid sexual assault allegations in May. Only six of the candidates received campaign contributions as of the August Louisiana ethics reporting date, and all but former Sen. A.G. Crowe were at the forum in Baton Rouge.
Members of the Press Club and media asked candidates for their positions on key issues that the next permanent secretary of state will deal with. Portions of their responses are detailed below.
Kyle Ardoin has served as the interim secretary of state since Schedler resigned in May. He says he’s the only candidate that has the “unique cyber security experience to deal with the election issues that face our state today."
Heather Cloud is the mayor of Turkey Creek. She filed a lawsuit against the state in 2014, disputing the mayoral election she lost by four votes. A court found four of her constituents had been bribed with $15 each to vote for her opponent. She says the lawsuits has given her a unique look at election security. “I have not dropped the ball, carrying the torch of election integrity since I won my right for a new election,” Cloud said.
Rep. Rick Edmonds, R-Baton Rouge, says he’s the “most conservative candidate in this race,” and touted his experience in the legislature serving on the House Appropriations Committee.
Renee Fontenot-Free was the first assistant to the secretary of state, and helped to reorganize elections after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. “I don’t need on the job training,” Free said. “I am the most qualified and I need to bring trust back to this office.”
Rep. Julie Stokes, R-Kenner, says she’ll use her experience as a certified public accountant to conduct internal audits of the office to run to identify and eliminate any inefficiencies. “Our job as a CPA is to set up internal control departments and environments, and to get good segregation of duties so you know that the results that come in are accounted for properly and disseminated to the public," Stokes said.
Ardoin says he has moved his IT director into the role of “cyber security officer,” although he stressed that elections are already secure. “I’m the only one here that’s working with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, the National Guard, and all of our federal and local partners,” Ardoin said.
Cloud says elections should be kept off of the internet, adding that Louisiana “does not have the infrastructure or the technology to start handling internet-based elections.” She also says improving voter turnout was “just as important.”
Edmonds says he would reorganize the office to create a cyber-security division. “I don’t think we have to be alarmists. I think we have to be realists,” Edmonds said. “All of our agencies are being hacked on a daily basis.”
Free says she believes the current system is secure because she “helped get it into place in 2005," but she says she’s not a cyber security expert. “If elected, I will surround myself with a team of people who are experts in the field,” Free said. “We must balance the security of the vote with technology.”
Stokes also says she hopes to build a team of experts, and says she does not support online voting. “We’ll continue to use voter identification and we’ll have good clean voter rolls,” Stokes said. “I believe very strongly in the sanctity of ‘one person, one vote.’”
Ardoin says he has instituted the strictest sexual misconduct policy “in all of state government" since he took over for Schedler, and referenced at least one time he fired an employee for misconduct.
Cloud says she’s not aware of any instances of sexual misconduct in her office as mayor or by any of her employees at the restaurant she owns. “Instead of focusing on the bad, let’s focus on the opportunity we have here," Cloud said. “We have an opportunity for change. If we want a better system of government, we’re going to have to hit the problem in its roots, which is our election systems.”
Edmonds, a former pastor, says he hopes to model good behavior in the workplace. “I’m all for policies,” Edmonds said. “But you have to have the respect of the people around you, day in and day out. It’s how you treat your people. It’s also how they seen you treat someone like your wife.”
Free echoed Edmonds' statement, adding that “you can have all kinds of rules and regulations, but if you don’t have someone with integrity that’s implementing those, you have nothing.”
Stokes says she considers herself to be a “first responder” to instances of inappropriate behavior, making reference to her speech on the House floor after Rep. Kenny Havard, R-St. Francisville, attached a controversial amendment to a human trafficking bill that would have implemented a weight limit for exotic dancers. “I took action for women and made sure that people knew that sort of conduct was not going to be tolerated,” Stokes said.
Election day is November 6.