Kyle Ardoin hearing

Louisiana Sec. of State Kyle Ardoin sheds tears discussing how to form an election plan during the coronavirus pandemic.

A few days before a federal court conducts a hearing over his emergency elections plan, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin announced Wednesday some changes to his proposal for how Louisiana will vote in the Nov. 3 presidential election in light of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Ardoin told all parish registrar of voters to require poll workers to wear masks, practice social distancing, sanitize voting machines and make disposable masks available to voters. While he can’t keep voters from casting ballots if they refuse to wear a mask, Ardoin directed registrars “and presiding officer of the parish governing authority to relocate polling places from senior centers and other facilities where operating polling places creates a public safety issue, and to notify voters of any polling place changes.”

The Nov. 3 election and the Dec. 5 runoff are being held amid the coronavirus pandemic and economic shutdown.

COVID-19 transmits through respiratory droplets spread primarily through in-person contact. Louisiana continues to have one the nation’s highest infection rates with 149,838 cases and 4,841 deaths as of Wednesday. About 20% of the infected people need hospitalization, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, known as CDC.

Ardoin wants elections officials to work with nursing home operators in their parish to designate and train a staff member to facilitate voting for the residents of a nursing home that is in lock down. He also asked registrars to consider setting up a staffed, curbside drop-off to deliver mail-in absentee ballots without relying on the U.S. Postal Service.

Though he is Louisiana’s chief elections officer, Ardoin can’t unilaterally change the laws governing elections protocols even in emergency situations, unlike secretaries in other states. But with his announcement Wednesday Ardoin made what changes he could without the need of a legislative OK.

U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge slated a hearing Tuesday and Wednesday next week to consider Ardoin’s emergency election plan, which limits who is allowed to file an absentee mail ballot to, primarily, registered voters who test positive for the COVID-19 after early voting starts but before Election Day along with those already allowed in state law, like people over the age of 65 years.

Ardoin, who tried unsuccessfully in the past to expand who could use mail-in ballots, has said he prepared the plan for the November-December elections with an eye towards something that would pass the Republican-majorities in the state Legislature.

But under state law, the governor also must agree to the proposed changes in election protocols. Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards has rejected the Republican Ardoin’s plan because of its failure to expand mail balloting, which will force voters to choose between endangering their health and participating in the election, the governor wrote.

Louisiana’s Republicans have echoed President Donald Trump’s unfounded allegations that mail balloting will result in widespread election fraud. The state’s Democrats counter that refusal to allow voting by mail – as 35 states already do – effectively disenfranchises voters fearful of picking up the highly contagious virus while standing in long lines at crowded polling stations where the people around them are not required wear masks and may not social distance.

People who have quarantined after being exposed to someone infected with the coronavirus, people with conditions that pose a greater risk of serious complications, and caregivers are among those who must cast their ballots in person under Ardoin’s emergency elections proposal.

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; plus are deciding some amendments to the state Constitution.

Ardoin also pointed to Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s reading of state law that says anyone testing positive or subject to quarantine as well as voters “with an underlying health condition” that would make COVID-19 more dangerous could qualify for an absentee mail ballot under the state’s existing disability program. An attorney general’s opinion is instructive but doesn’t carry the weight of court’s interpretation of the law.

The CDC separates those conditions between those who “are at increased risk of severe illness from COVID-19” – cancer, chronic kidney disease, and serious heart maladies – and those that “might be at an increased risk” – including asthma, liver disease and pregnancy.

Landry wrote on Sept. 1 that a voter would need certification from a medical professional that the applicant is disabled.

Ardoin wrote: “Over the next few weeks, in light of the failure of the proposed emergency election plan, I will be taking the steps necessary to implement all of the changes outlined above, and provide guidance for implementing the Attorney General’s opinion, to ensure that Louisianans have every opportunity to vote consistent with the existing law.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.