(The Center Square) – After five hours of debate, a Louisiana House of Representatives committee on Wednesday voted 8-6 to approve an emergency plan for this fall’s elections that most likely never will be implemented.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, said he was compelled to scale back mail-in voting options that were included in his emergency plan used for this summer’s elections because the legislature’s Republican majority wouldn’t vote for the same plan again. But Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, already has said he won’t sign off on the new plan, calling it “woefully inadequate” for protecting the right to vote and public health amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Ardoin needs approval from the state House, Senate and the governor to move forward with the plan.
“Politics and a pandemic don’t mix,” Ardoin said Wednesday. “If there’s an impasse, something’s got to be done between the legislature and the fourth floor,” referring to the governor’s office.
Ardoin said he does not have time to start over and create a new plan. Assuming the impasse cannot be resolved, the elections might proceed as normal as if there wasn’t a public health emergency.
More likely, a federal court could create an emergency plan and impose it on the state. Voting rights advocates currently are suing the state, calling for expanded access to being able to vote by mail.
“Passing this plan today virtually guarantees that we’re handing over our responsibility to the courts,” said Rep. Barry Ivey, the only Republican on the House and Governmental Affairs Committee to vote against Ardoin’s proposal.
Ivey said the summer plan had proven successful, and argued for holding another committee meeting on Friday to reconsider that plan, which added being subject to a medically necessary quarantine, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or awaiting a diagnosis, caring for someone who is quarantined, or having a chronic health condition that imparts a higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications as valid reasons to vote absentee. It also temporarily waived the usual requirement that first-time voters must vote in person.
Generally, absentee ballots in Louisiana are limited to 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. Ardoin’s plan for the fall elections would allow voters who test positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before Election Day to use the hospitalization exemption but adds no other emergency absentee ballot provisions.
State health officials said they were concerned about several groups of people going to the polls, including people who believe they have the coronavirus but haven’t yet received test results, people who are at high risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or are caring for someone who is, and people who are quarantined because they have come in close contact with someone who has tested positive.
Current law also includes a disability exemption, but “disability” is not defined, Ardoin said. He suggested people who are at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications could get a doctor’s note describing their condition as a disability and use that exemption to vote absentee.
During debates held this summer, Republicans raised concerns about the fraud potential of voting by mail. This time around, the concern was over whether the U.S. Postal Service could handle the number of ballots expected.
Ardoin said about 19 percent of the state’s electorate voted by mail in July and the Postal Service struggled to handle the volume. In a much higher turnout election in November, those concerns are multiplied, Republicans said.
Ardoin acknowledged that Postmaster General Louis DeJoy has pledged to address the problems experienced in Louisiana and other states.
“He hasn’t solved the problem [just] by saying something,” Ardoin said.
The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee will discuss the proposed plan Thursday afternoon.