Court issues ruling on upcoming state elections
Louisiana should allow more access to absentee mail ballots for the Nov. 3 presidential elections, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ruled in a 44-page decision released Wednesday afternoon.
“The Court finds that Plaintiffs’ testimony clearly establishes that the state’s maintenance of limited absentee by mail voting imposes a burden on their right to vote. The burden on the right to vote is further supported by significant record evidence,” Dick wrote.
Dick made her ruling a week after hearing testimony and reviewing a sheaf of documents and expert opinions, pro and con.
Dick’s decision likely will be appealed to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans, though none of the defendants have said so yet. The election is in 48 days.
Dick was nominated by President Barack Obama and assumed the federal bench in January 2013.
Fearing that standing in line waiting to vote would become a super-spreader event, two Baton Rouge voters asked the federal court to stop Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin from using an emergency election plan that limited the use of mail-in ballots.
The individual voters were joined by the Louisiana branch of the NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice, a voter rights group.
The Plaintiffs argued in Harding v Edwards that fear of catching the easy spreading COVID-19 would prevent a large number of voters from participating in the Nov. 3 election and the Dec. 5 runoff, where needed.
Ardoin and state Attorney General Jeff Landry countered that absentee balloting is a concession, not an absolute right and that no study has shown that in-person voting has led to a spike in infections.
“We have received and are currently reviewing Judge Dick’s ruling,” Ardoin said. “A decision as to how to proceed will be made after careful consideration of the facts is weighed with the fact that absentee voting currently underway for some voters, and early voting mere weeks away.”
“I do hope the secretary of state will take the time to really look at it (court ruling) and if he does he will go forward with the election just as the court calls upon him to do so,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said Wednesday on his radio program. “It was an appropriate decision, one absolutely required by the law and the facts.”
In addition to selecting the president, Louisiana voters also will be choosing a U.S. Senator, all six congressmen, two Public Service Commissioners, two Louisiana Supreme Court justices, a handful of state appellate court judges, all district judges and prosecutors, not to mention some local offices and constitutional amendments.
The general election is Nov. 3 with a Dec. 5 runoff where needed.
Sherri Wharton Hadskey, who is Ardoin’s chief aide in charge of the 235 employees who do the hands-on work to put on elections, had testified last week that vote count may not be completed by the end of the night on Nov. 3 because so many additional mail ballots already have been requested under existing law that allows absentee voting to registered voters who are 65 years or older, people out of the parish on election day or are disabled and have been accepted into the disabled program.
About 60,000 voters usually cast mail-in ballots under the state’s existing laws. But about 156,000 absentee mail ballots already have been requested, said Hadskey, who is commissioner of elections.
Hadskey expects 65 percent of the 2.9 million registered Louisiana voters will participate in November’s presidential election. She added that she was unaware of any incidents of voter fraud among mail voters in the July and August elections.
Judge Dick’s ruling resurrects Secretary of State Ardoin’s emergency protocols for the July 11 and Aug. 15 elections, which allowed voters to seek an absentee ballot if they were at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of underlying medical conditions; were subject to a quarantine order; were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or were caring for someone who was isolated because of the virus.
Democratic and moderate Republican legislators approved the plan for the primaries. But a number of Republican lawmakers warned Ardoin that they would not back a similar plan for the Nov. 3 election.
President Donald J. Trump has repeatedly said and tweeted he believes that widespread use of mail ballots leads to fraud.
Louisiana Republicans have repeated those claims in their arguments that the use of mail ballots should be expanded to account for the pandemic.
Saying he drafted a plan for the November-December elections that would pass the GOP-majority Legislature, Ardoin rolled back those COVID-related absentee exceptions to only those voters who test positive for COVID-19 during a two-week window between the Oct. 20 beginning of early voting and Election Day. Otherwise, only those already covered by state law are able to get an absentee mail ballot.
On a largely party-line vote, the Louisiana House approved of Ardoin’s November-December emergency plan on a vote of 62-32 and the state Senate said yes on a 27-11 vote.
The legislator’s ballots were delivered by mail.
But state law requires that Gov. Edwards also approve the plan, and he did not. Edwards called the plan “woefully inadequate” and contrary to the advice of state and federal health officials.
Though named as the main defendant in the lawsuit, the Democratic governor sided with the Harding plaintiffs and asked Dick to reinstate Ardoin’s emergency election plan for the July-August primary elections.
Judge Dick’s decision in a nutshell
• The Court DENIES Plaintiffs’ Motion for injunctive relief to increase the period of early voting for the Nov. 3 Presidential General and Open Congressional Primary Election to thirteen days.
• The Court GRANTS more limited injunctive relief as to early voting and shall order that the period of early voting for the Nov. 3 election be increased to a 10-day period which shall run from Friday, Oct.16, to Tuesday, Oct. 27, (excluding Sunday, October 17 and Sunday, October 25), from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. each day.
• The Court DENIES Plaintiffs’ Motion for injunctive relief to increase the period of early voting for the Dec. 5 runoff.
• The Court DENIES the Plaintiffs’ Motion for injunctive relief to enjoin entirely the operation of the Excuse Requirement set forth in Louisiana Revised Statute §18:1303.
• The Court GRANTS Plaintiffs’ alternative Motion for injunctive relief to make available the COVID-19 Ballot Application that was used during the July and August elections and to supply absentee by mail ballots to voters who validly request absentee ballots via COVID-19 Ballot Application in both the Nov. 3 and the Dec. 5 elections.