Six months after they began collecting signatures and less than an hour before their Wednesday deadline, organizers of the campaign to recall New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell delivered 10 bankers’ boxes of petition sheets to City Hall and declared victory in their quest to force a vote on her future.

The recall campaign needs 49,976 signatures to trigger a referendum on Cantrell, who’s been dogged by declining approval ratings and a series of controversies during her second term.

But even as organizers danced to a blaring brass band on the steps of City Hall, they declined to share how many signatures they collected outside grocery stores, along parade routes and from mailers to voters.

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Nolatoya.org co-organizer Belden 'Noonie Man' Batiste dances outside New Orleans City Hall after he and other volunteers delivered 10 boxes filled with Mayor LaToya Cantrell recall petitions on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

The recall campaign cited its own lawsuit against Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson, who is in charge of verifying the signatures, as the reason it won’t disclose the count.

“Stay on this journey with me. I really do ask that from our residents,” said Eileen Carter, a recall leader and former Cantrell staffer turned critic. “You have built your trust with us, and we ask you to hold on just a little bit more.”

Cantrell’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment on the submission of the signature sheets.

To vote or not to vote?

The recall campaign’s announcement that it wouldn't release a count means it could be days or weeks before residents learn its chances of success.

A history-maker as the city’s first Black female mayor, Cantrell could make history again as the first to face a recall election. However, recall experts and veterans of the verification process caution that the recall campaign could still fall short.

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Mayor LaToya Cantrell

Wilson and her small team will have 20 business days to sift through thousands of signatures, according to Louisiana law. They will do so under the watchful eye of recall organizers, who have already filed a lawsuit against her.

The lawsuit alleges that Wilson has failed to move voters with inaccurate registration information from the active to the inactive voter list. If the recall campaign succeeds in having 33,000 names moved off the active rolls, its goal would drop by 6,500 names. A judge is set to hold a hearing on the case on Monday.

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(l-r) Recall organizer Belden Batiste, attorneys Blake Arcuri and Laura Cannizzaro Rodrigue, and recall organizer Eileen Carter announce a lawsuit against Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson at a news conference in New Orleans on Thursday, February 16, 2023. (Photo by Brett Duke, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune)

Joshua Spivak, a national expert on recall campaigns, said such litigation often slows down verification, although it’s usually the targeted official who files suit.

In this case, he found it “perplexing” that organizers wouldn’t disclose their signature haul. He thought it was unlikely the organizers would decline to release the count if they thought they had a healthy cushion. So did Ed Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.

“I think if they had the number of signatures they needed, they would be waving it like the American flag,” Chervenak said. “I think they probably reached their threshold, but they're waiting to see whether those 30,000 names will be purged from the active voter list.”

Recall organizers also refused to turn over copies of the signatures to The Times-Picayune, something they had agreed to do by 5 p.m. Wednesday in a Feb. 8 settlement of a lawsuit brought by the newspaper. Instead, they sent a letter saying the newspaper would first have to hand over $15,000 to cover the cost of making copies.

A long drive

Regardless, Chervenak saw the mere submission of the petition sheets as a “historic” moment in municipal politics. When Carter and Belden "Noonie Man" Batiste filed notice of their recall drive on Aug. 26, many observers assumed their effort was an exercise in futility.

“I think for a lot of the experts, myself included, we didn't really give them much of a chance, but they certainly exceeded expectations,” Chervenak said.

No one has ever gotten close to recalling a mayor of New Orleans, and Louisiana law sets a high bar compared to other states for a recall. At least since 1966, no elected official from Orleans Parish has faced a recall vote, according to the Secretary of State’s Office. The recall campaign against former Jefferson Parish President Mike Yenni six years ago died in its infancy.

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Boxes filled with recall petitions for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell delivered to City Hall by nolatoya.org organizers and volunteers on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

However, recall organizers may have been aided by several factors: Cantrell's sagging popularity, a mega-donor who was willing to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars to unseat the mayor, technology which organizers say allowed them to verify signatures in real-time and a recent change to state law that lowered the signature threshold from a third to a fifth of active, registered voters.

“People just felt that things just aren't working, that they're completely on the wrong track and the only way to shake things up and change things was to change leadership,” Chervenak said.

Recall organizers gave credit to enthusiastic volunteers and Cantrell’s serial political missteps, from first-class overseas flights to an incident Saturday where she raised a middle finger to the Krewe of Tucks parade from the stands at Gallier Hall.

“The administration is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Carter.

The mayor had only about $6,700 in her campaign account at the end of 2022, jeopardizing her ability to mount a legal and political campaign. Cantrell’s campaign has dismissed the recall campaign as a “Republican-backed maneuver” and cast doubt earlier this month on the accuracy of their periodic updates on the signature drive.

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One of ten boxes filled with recall petitions for New Orleans Mayor LaToya Cantrell delivered to City Hall by nolatoya.org organizers and volunteers on Wednesday, February 22, 2023. (Photo by Chris Granger | The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate)

One key test for both sides begins immediately. Under state law, voters have five days to ask the registrar to have their names added to or stricken from the petition. If the recall campaign has only narrowly exceeded its goal that could be a difference-maker; an incorporation petition for the proposed city of St. George failed in 2015 because of withdrawals.

Registrar on hot seat

Batiste delivered the petitions with a flourish on Wednesday, hopping out of a cargo van filled with the bankers' boxes of signature sheets and shouting to volunteers waiting in front of City Hall.

“Let’s go! Get the boxes!” he said. “Come on, y’all gotta move quick!”

Then, Batiste and volunteers trooped inside City Hall to turn over the sheets and collect a receipt. The campaign's branded van, which was parked in a crosswalk, picked up a parking ticket in the process.

Now, the baton has been handed to Wilson, a low-profile public official who's charged under state law with verifying the signatures.

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Wilson and staffers will have to check whether each line on the petition includes the signature of a registered voter that matches those in her files; a date; the signer's printed name, ward, precinct, year of birth and address; and the name and signature of a witness. Even the slightest mistake could lead to a signature being invalidated.

Wilson didn’t return a request for comment Wednesday on how the process will work. In a statement to WWL-AM, the office said that it “has, with great effort, planned procedures for the receipt and certification of voter signatures.”

The statement added that the office is “small staffed; however, this labor-intensive process shall be completed accurately, timely, and in keeping with election laws.”

In office since 2006, Wilson was appointed by the City Council and enjoys what is essentially lifetime tenure under state law. She can only be removed by the State Board of Election Supervisors for a felony conviction or misconduct related to her job.

While Wilson’s office is housed inside City Hall, she does not report to Cantrell. Under Louisiana law, her nonpartisan office is a subdivision of the state. The state splits the cost of her and her employees’ salary with the city.

If the petition is verified, Wilson must notify Gov. John Bel Edwards, who would then have to set an election date within 15 days. Voters would be asked only whether to recall or retain Cantrell.

The next regular election where the recall could appear on the ballot would likely be the Oct. 14 gubernatorial primary. However, recall organizers said they would ask Edwards to call a special election sooner.

Chervenak said an earlier date could favor the recall campaign.

“If you hold it in the October election, then the emphasis would be on the governor's race on state legislative races, and the recall might get lost in the mix,” he said.

Email Matt Sledge at msledge@theadvocate.com.

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