BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Candidates running against Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin are objecting to a letter he wrote elderly participants in an absentee voting program, saying the letter sought to promote Ardoin at state taxpayer expense as the November election nears.

Ardoin's campaign spokesman dismissed the criticism, saying the Sept. 20 letter sent by the Republican elections chief to people over the age of 65 who are allowed to vote absentee by mail educates the voters about their rights.

The letter recipients have a proven record of casting ballots. Only the secretary of state has access to the list.

Candidates vying for the job on the Nov. 6 ballot said Ardoin inappropriately used the list to help raise his name recognition in a race that has drawn little attention and where the contenders are largely unknown outside of the political world.

"Only Ardoin has access to that list. By sending the letter under his name, he knows that he was taking advantage of his position for the benefit of his campaign," said A.G. Crowe, a former Republican state senator from Pearl River.

Turkey Creek Mayor Heather Cloud, a Republican, told The Advocate the sentiments in Ardoin's letter are laudable but that "doesn't appear to be a true reflection of his motives." She said it appears to be the first time any secretary of state sent such correspondence.

Ardoin took over as interim secretary of state in May when Republican Tom Schedler resigned amid sexual harassment allegations. Ardoin is one of nine candidates seeking to fill the remaining year of Schedler's term in a special election.

Ardoin mailed 47,039 letters to the absentee by mail voters at a cost of $23,965. In the letter, he assures voters that "state law prohibits voter harassment, coercion or intimidation by candidates or third parties" and includes a number to report concerns.

"My primary goal as Louisiana's chief elections officer is to ensure the security of our elections and the integrity of your vote," Ardoin wrote.

The letter was part of a voter education outreach campaign that includes public service announcements and social media, said Ardoin's campaign spokesman Lionel Rainey.

"Either Secretary Ardoin's opponents don't want him to do his job or they don't understand what the job is, and I'm not sure which one is worse," Rainey said. "They are literally complaining that the secretary of state is reaching out to protect senior citizens."

Democratic candidate Renee Fontenot Free, a top assistant to two prior secretaries of state, told The Associated Press the letter has "zero message in it."

"I think it was terribly inappropriate and ill-timed. That's a waste of taxpayer dollars," Free said. "It appears that he's using public funds to promote his name."

Republican state Reps. Rick Edmonds, of Baton Rouge, and Julie Stokes, of Kenner, both running for secretary of state, also slammed the letter.

"It is very hypocritical to say you will protect voter data while exploiting it for your own campaign purposes," Edmonds said in a statement.

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