Louisiana Republican lawmakers on Wednesday blocked an emergency election plan that would expand mail-in voting, early voting and make other changes to the state’s delayed presidential primary election because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The move thrusts Louisiana into a partisan debate playing out across the country over whether to use mail-in voting and other measures recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control to reduce the risks associated with holding in-person elections amid an epidemic that has taken more than 25,000 lives across the country.

Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who crafted the plan after negotiations with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and some legislative leaders, proposed extending mail-in ballots to people affected by the coronavirus and expanding early voting, among other precautions.

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While he warned he was facing fast-approaching deadlines for acquiring new supplies for the election, Ardoin faced stiff resistance from his own party, with a Louisiana GOP official calling it “too extreme” because of the additional categories of people who would qualify for an absentee ballot. The Republican lawmakers echoed President Donald Trump, who has claimed absentee ballots invite fraud, though experts say voter fraud is extremely rare.

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“It is extremely broad and basically covers everyone in Louisiana,” said state Sen. Barry Milligan, R-Shreveport. “There is not an election cycle that goes through that we wake up to the news that votes are found in somebody’s garage or somebody’s truck.”

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On a 5-1 party-line vote, the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee rejected an emergency certification that would allow Ardoin to move forward with the plan after a more than three-hour hearing at the State Capitol. The House and Governmental Affairs Committee later approved the emergency certification and deferred action on the plan after Ardoin said he would work with legislators to try to reach a compromise.

The plan would allow several categories of people who don’t normally qualify for absentee ballots to cast their vote by mail. That includes those with serious underlying health conditions, those 60 or older, people subject to stay-at-home, quarantine or isolation orders, those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking a medical diagnosis or those who are “unable to appear in public” because of concerns they were exposed to the virus, among others.

Some Democratic lawmakers, many of whom want to see universal mail-in ballots to enfranchise more voters during the pandemic, complained the effort didn’t go far enough but still offered up their support.

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State Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, who is pushing a bill to expand mail-in ballots to all voters, noted many people have family members with underlying health conditions who could be put at risk if elections go forward without changes.

Gov. Edwards at a press conference Wednesday said “nobody should have to choose between exercising their right to vote and potentially endangering themselves or others,” and said he hopes lawmakers reconsider.

The fate of the state’s elections, now set for July 11th for the presidential primary and August 15 for local general elections after two delays, is up in the air. Ardoin said in an interview he would work with lawmakers and the governor to try to craft a compromise, but he noted he faces a “drop dead” deadline to buy equipment on April 24th. The full House and Senate must also approve the plan.

“I hear what they’re saying,” Ardoin said. “I think some of their concerns are not steeped in all the facts that were presented to them today. I’m hoping over time there can be some clarity.”

The emergency plan would only apply to the delayed Spring elections. But public health officials have warned the coronavirus could make a resurgence in the colder fall weather, when the country is slated to have a presidential election in November. Edwards this week said he expected officials would conduct the late summer elections with the new restrictions and reevaluate.

While the presidential primaries are settled, Louisiana still must participate to certify its delegate allocation to the conventions, Ardoin said. Plus, local tax and bond propositions on the ballot can’t be delayed any further.

Officials on both sides of the issue said they wanted to avoid an election similar to the one conducted by Wisconsin, where Republican lawmakers blocked a proposal by a Democratic governor to expand mail-in voting and delay the state’s elections. Voters went to the polls and waited in long lines earlier this month in that state in the midst of a pandemic that has prompted officials across the country to shutter businesses and urge people to stay home.

Ardoin said if all sides can’t agree on an emergency plan, the state’s elections could look like Wisconsin’s.

“It could potentially put us in that position,” he said. “I’m hoping it doesn’t. Right now that’s the position we’re in.”

Ardoin stressed his plan would not mail ballots to all voters; they would have to request the absentee ballots, and he noted it would be temporary.

While Trump has railed against mail-in voting because he says it perpetuates voter fraud, studies have shown while there is a slightly higher risk of fraud with mail-in ballots, the risk is still extremely low. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, it is “still more likely for an American to be struck by lightning than to commit mail voting fraud.”

Senate and Governmental Affairs Chairwoman Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, said in a statement after the vote she is confident the various sides can come to an agreement on a “reasonable plan that protects our election process and responds adequately to challenges that might occur during this pandemic.”

Louisiana’s presidential primary was initially scheduled for April 4th but was delayed by Edwards, at the request of Ardoin, until June 20th. This week, Edwards delayed the elections again until July and the subsequent general election in August.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com