COVID-19 election plan in court’s hands
Louisiana’s Republican legislative majority and Democratic governor couldn’t agree on how to safely hold an election during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, the decision may be out of their hands.
Three Louisiana voters, the state chapter of the NAACP, and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice have sued Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin.
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick opened hearings in the case Tuesday. Those hearing are expected to continue today.
The plaintiffs argue the state is forcing Louisiana residents to choose between voting and protecting themselves and their communities from COVID-19.
They say restrictions regarding who can request absentee ballots and reductions in the number of early-voting days compared to the summer elections require them “to breach the social distancing necessary to protect their and their community’s health from transmission of COVID-19, and unnecessarily endanger poll workers and other election officials.”
Though the secretary of state runs Louisiana’s elections, he cannot implement an emergency voting plan on his own. He needs the approval of the governor and a majority of both houses of the Legislature.
Lawmakers in April approved an emergency plan for this year’s summer elections that expanded early voting from seven days to 13, relocated polling locations from senior centers, and added new COVID-19-related reasons to request an absentee ballot.
But Ardoin said legislative leaders told him they could not support using the same plan for the elections set for November and December.
Many conservatives are wary of voting by mail, which they say is more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting. Ardoin says he doesn’t want voters to rely on the U.S. Postal Service, which he says struggled with the volume of mail-in ballots even during the low-turnout summer elections.
So in August, Ardoin presented a plan that would allow voters who test positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before Election Day to vote absentee but includes no other emergency absentee ballot provisions.
People 65 or older, members of the military, overseas voters, people who are hospitalized and people who won’t be in their parish on Election Day still could vote by mail as usual.
The plan also would have increased Louisiana’s early voting period for the Nov. 3 election from the standard seven days to 10 days, down from the 13 days allowed for the summer elections.
Attorney General Jeff Landry has issued an opinion — which does not carry the force of law — that a voter who is diagnosed with COVID-19 or is subject to a quarantine order while awaiting a COVID-19 diagnosis would qualify to vote absentee under the state’s existing disability excuse so long as a medical professional certifies that the voter is disabled.
Ardoin crafted the plan to attract enough Republican votes for legislative approval, but it was dead on arrival because Edwards did not support it, calling it “woefully inadequate” for protecting public health and the right to vote.
Edwards has filed a memorandum in the lawsuit asking the judge to direct Ardoin to implement the same plan that was used for the summer elections. He says the current proposed plan fails to adhere to U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.
Voters in November will choose among candidates for president, the U.S. House of Representatives, one U.S. Senate seat, two spots on the Louisiana Supreme Court, and one seat on the Public Service Commission.
They also will elect judges, prosecutors, various local positions and consider several proposed state constitutional amendments.
Runoffs where necessary will be held in December.