Louisiana News

Louisiana legislative committees approve COVID-19 voting plan; full bodies will vote by mail

(The Center Square) – Two Louisiana legislative committees on Wednesday approved an emergency plan for holding the next two elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The plan, which still must be approved by the full state Senate and House of Representatives, would expand early voting from seven days to 13, relocate polling locations from senior centers, and add new reasons to request an absentee ballot. It would apply to elections scheduled for July and August but not the federal election in November.
The stated goals are protecting public health while maintaining election integrity and keeping the state out of court. The plan does not go as far as some advocates would like in expanding voting by mail.
“Failure to have a plan would open us up to lawsuits,” state Senate President Page Cortez said.
The plan temporarily adds 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 use an absentee ballot. It also temporarily waives the usual requirement that first-time voters must vote in person.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who runs the state’s elections, couldn’t get the same committees to take action on his plan last week. A provision that would have allowed anyone with health concerns about in-person voting use a mail-in absentee ballot was a major sticking point for Ardoin’s fellow Republicans, who said it was overly broad.
That provision was struck from the version advanced Wednesday. Also eliminated were measures allowing absentee ballots for voters over 60 years old (the usual cutoff is 65), subject to a “stay at home” order, or caring for a child or grandchild.
“We’re discriminating against the old and the young,” said M. Christian Green, representing the League of Women Voters of Louisiana.
Green said the summer elections should be used as test cases for expanding access to voting by mail in advance of the higher-turnout November election. She opposes tying absentee voting to a medical diagnosis rather than the voter’s health concerns, noting that someone could be sick but lack a positive COVID-19 test.
If even one person feels they were unable to vote safely, “we consider that to be voter suppression,” Green said.
Rep. Dodie Horton, R-Haughton, on the other hand, objected to letting people claim they have the illness without having to produce a positive test.
“What concerns me is that we’re setting a precedent [for November],” Rep. Valarie Hodges, a Denham Springs Republican, said.
Ardoin stressed the plan only applies to the July and August elections. By November, when public health experts say the nation could be in the midst of a second wave of the pandemic, officials will have more information about best practices to make prudent decisions, he said.
“Legislatures are not bound by precedent,” Ardoin said, adding that he would oppose making the proposed changes permanent.
Gov. John Bel Edwards has postponed the two elections twice, citing public health concerns. The presidential preference primary and municipal primary election now is scheduled for July 11 while a state general election is slated for Aug. 15.
Edwards, a Democrat, on Tuesday said he could support the new plan, though Ardoin said Wednesday that the governor wasn’t happy with it and was not involved in its creation. Edwards had pushed for the broader access to absentee voting in last week’s version.
Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office helped create the plan, Ardoin said. Landry would defend the state if state officials are sued for allegedly denying people the right to vote.
Rep. Royce Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat, said he preferred last week’s version of the plan. He said voters might not know they have COVID-19 or a chronic health condition making them more vulnerable to the virus but might still be concerned about in-person voting, among other objections.
Ardoin said he didn’t want to oversee a repeat of the recent Wisconsin election, where numerous polling locations were shut down, many poll workers didn’t show up, and voters waited in line for several hours in the midst of the pandemic. Duplessis said at least 20 new COVID-19 cases in Wisconsin have been tied to that election.
“Our ancestors fought and died for the right to vote,” Duplessis said. “I think that we want to make sure nobody dies in the future for the right to vote.”
The Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee approved the plan without objection. The corresponding House committee advanced it by an 11-5 vote.
Members of the state House and Senate will have the opportunity to vote for the plan by mail. Lawmakers would have five days to vote once receiving those ballots.
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