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Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, left, chats with Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, right, before the beginning of the Committee on House and Governmental Affairs meeting in the House chamber at the State Capitol Wednesday April 15, 2020, in Baton Rouge, La. The committee listened to Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin's proposal to change the 2020 presidential preference primary election and the 2020 municipal general election and to consider written emergency plan for the elections.

An emergency election plan aimed at addressing voting during the coronavirus pandemic, which Republican lawmakers altered to limit the expansion of mail-in ballots, has drawn a federal lawsuit seeking a more robust expansion of absentee voting.

The lawsuit, brought by the NAACP, Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and four individual voters, says the reasons voters can access mail-in ballots under the plan fall short of protecting voters of the coronavirus, which has taken an outsized toll on Louisiana. It calls the plan “unduly restrictive” and seeks to repeal the requirements that voters present an excuse to receive an absentee ballot, thereby expanding them to everyone.

“Risking your health, and the health of your family, should not be a requirement to partake in the electoral process,” Catherine Meza, senior counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said in a statement. “We are hoping this lawsuit not only increases access to absentee voting but also makes in-person voting safer, so that Louisianans can exercise their constitutional right without putting their lives at risk.”

The lawsuit also asks for other rules on absentee ballots to be suspended and for early voting to be expanded, among other things, all while the coronavirus pandemic is ongoing in Louisiana. The lawsuit argues the election plan would particularly impact black voters, because the virus has taken a disproportionate toll on minorities.

The plan crafted by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin last month for the delayed July and August elections originally featured several reasons voters could use to obtain a mail-in ballot and avoid voting in person, including a fear of transmitting or catching the virus.

But Republican lawmakers, aided by Attorney General Jeff Landry, fought back against the expansion, echoing claims by President Donald Trump that such an expansion would invite fraud. Election experts and studies have repeatedly found voter fraud is extremely rare.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has voiced his support for the plan, which passed both chambers of the Legislature in late April.

They revised the plan to include only the following reasons for getting a mail-in ballot: those at higher risk because of serious medical conditions, those subject to a “medically necessary quarantine or isolation order,” those advised by a health provider to self-quarantine, those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking a medical diagnosis, or those caring for someone who is subject to a quarantine order and has been advised to self-quarantine.

One of the plaintiffs, Jasmine Pogue, suffers from asthma and a history of upper respiratory infections, according to the suit, but while she fears she could die if catching the virus, she would not qualify for an absentee ballot under the plan passed by lawmakers.

“Ms. Pogue’s only option to vote requires risking virus exposure – and perhaps her life – at an in-person voting site,” the suit states.

Ardoin's office didn't immediately respond to a request for comment Thursday evening. The lawsuit names the governor, secretary of state and the registrars of voters for East Baton Rouge and Orleans parishes.

Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens said the governor hasn't reviewed the suit, but said the governor supported the original plan, which featured more reasons voters could get absentee ballots. The lawsuit, which is filed in the federal Middle District of Louisiana court, argues requiring any excuses to get an absentee ballot is unconstitutional and violates the Voting Rights Act. 

Republicans wary of an expansion of mail-in ballots worked with Landry’s office to craft a plan that they hope will survive a lawsuit. A similar lawsuit is playing out in Texas over that state’s refusal to expand mail-in ballots.

Lawmakers on both sides of the issue in Louisiana have said they want to avoid the state holding an election similar to the one held in Wisconsin last month, which drew widespread criticism for drawing long lines of voters to precincts in the midst of a pandemic. That election came after that state’s Democratic governor and Republican Legislature failed to reach an agreement over an alternative.

A host of states, including Louisiana, have delayed their presidential primary elections over concerns about the pandemic. While the presidential primary is set, Louisiana’s elections also include many local races and party positions. Lawmakers have also indicated the plan could set a precedent for the November general presidential election, which will draw far more voters.

Alaska, Wyoming, Ohio, Hawaii are among the states that switched entirely or almost entirely to mail ballots for the elections. Several other states have expanded access to absentee ballots.


Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com