(TNS) — Now that Hurricane Laura has passed, Louisiana politicos are returning to the issue of what role mail-in balloting will play in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
With Republicans wanting to limit absentee balloting by mail and Democrats wanting to expand it, the issue has been dumped into federal court.
Responses are due this week to a lawsuit filed by three voters, the Louisiana branch of the NAACP, and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, of Baton Rouge, ordered during a status conference held as Hurricane Laura bared down on the southwest Louisiana coast. She set Sept. 8-9 hearings to deliver evidence and arguments on the issue. “You’ll probably be having a busy Labor Day weekend,” Dick told the lawyers. “I will be reading everything filed.”
The issue is an emergency plan for handling voting on Nov. 3 election and the Dec. 5 runoff amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdown. COVID-19 transmits primarily through in-person contact, and about 20 percent of the infected people need hospitalization, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. More than 40 million people have filed for unemployment insurance since March.
In addition to electing a president in November, Louisiana voters are choosing a U.S. Senator; all six members of the U.S. House delegation; two justices on the Louisiana Supreme Court; a member of the Public Service Commission; several state appellate court judges; all the state district court judges and prosecutors, along with various local posts.
“While the emergency election plan will be decided in court, I hope any ruling includes the critical mechanisms my office needs to administer the election in the extraordinary circumstances of a pandemic,” Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said Friday. He had testified that he needed to start getting operations in place no later than Sept. 10.
In his initial plan, drafted in March when the state was still in lockdown, Ardoin proposed an expansive list of voters who could choose to absentee vote by mail. He was pilloried by fellow Republicans in the state Legislature and returned to the drawing board to come up with fewer, though still some, exceptions that would allow mail-in voting for the July and August primaries. Democrats and enough Republicans signed off on that plan, but the Republican majority in the Legislature warned Ardoin that they wouldn’t approve similar protocols in the November-December election.
Ardoin’s latest emergency election plan offered no expansion of who can vote absentee beyond those already covered under state law except, primarily, for registered voters who test positive for the COVID-19 after early voting starts but before Election Day. Ardoin’s proposal provides no mail-in option for someone urged to isolate because they were exposed to the coronavirus or for people at greater risk of serious complications or for caregivers — they will have to cast their ballots in person.
"I have to go pragmatically where the votes are," Ardoin told lawmakers during House and Senate committee hearings, during which he shed tears for the partisan polarization in the Louisiana Legislature.
“This is not the best plan. Unfortunately, it's the best plan I thought I could get passed."
Slidell Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Republican who chairs the Senate committee overseeing elections issues, said voting in person is no more dangerous than going to the grocery store.
Only one Republican voted against Ardoin’s plan in what otherwise was party-line approval by the two GOP-majority House and Senate committees, then sending it out for a vote by the full Legislature, which also is overwhelmingly Republican.
The Legislature’s ballots on the plan — being mailed to Baton Rouge, “ironically,” Dick observed — will be tallied Sept. 9.
But the full Legislature’s position doesn’t really matter because state law requires Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to also approve Ardoin’s emergency plan. He does not.
“Sadly Louisiana appears to be the only state in the country moving in the direction of providing less voter protections for those affected by COVID-19, leaving Louisiana to again be an outlier on protecting the health and safety of our citizens,” Edwards wrote Ardoin in an Aug. 20 letter rejecting the plan. ”The official current recommendations from the CDC for those with underlying health conditions is to ‘limit your interactions with other people as much as possible and to take precautions to prevents getting COVID-19 when you do interact with others.’”
Thirty-four states and the District of Columbia offer eligible voters the option of mail ballots. Of the 16 states that require an excuse to vote absentee by mail, several have expanded the scope of absentee eligibility for coronavirus situations, including Arkansas and Alabama.
The Republican National Committee is involved in lawsuits in 17 states over the issue and with the Trump campaign has set aside $20 million for litigation and poll watchers.
President Donald Trump has made 91 attacks on the integrity of voting so far this year, according to The New York Times, repeatedly tweeting unsupported claims that mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud.
“With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” Trump tweeted last month. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???”
Postal Service executives warned that on-time delivery of ballots cannot be relied on in almost every state in the union.
In Louisiana’s federal lawsuit, Harding, et al., v. Edwards, et al., the plaintiffs argue that with COVID-19 infection and death rates still rising, many voters are faced with the choice of participating in the election or putting themselves in danger. And because the virus seems to impact Black and Hispanic people more than White people, the decision to forgo an alternative means of participation effectively would disenfranchise many of those voters.
“In-person voters — both during early voting and on Election Day — will have to wait in line, including indoors, in close proximity with other individuals, sometimes for hours, before they can vote. And in such crowded conditions some polling places may be unable to accommodate necessary social distancing,” the petition states.
Attorney General Jeff Landry and Edwards, who usually oppose each other on most political issues, are on the same side, at least officially, in the federal lawsuit.
Edwards’ chief counsel, Matthew Block, told the status conference that the governor already has made his position against the emergency plan known.
Landry’s team refused comment for this article saying their response is not due until Wednesday.
©2020 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.