Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has proposed a plan for the Nov. 3 presidential election that rolls back mail-in voting significantly from the recently-held summer elections, allowing only one category of people to vote by mail if they don’t meet the normal requirements – those who have tested positive for COVID-19.
The plan, submitted to lawmakers Monday morning, garnered pushback from Democrats and advocacy groups who have sought an expansion of vote-by-mail in Louisiana. It aligns with what some leaders of the majority Republican Legislature have said they want to see for the November and December elections.
If it passes, it will ensure Louisiana is one of eight states to require an excuse for voters to obtain an absentee ballot; the rest of the states either mail all voters a ballot or make them available to everyone.
“A major expansion of our absentee ballot program in such a short time-frame would be nearly impossible, would exacerbate voter confusion, and would further strain an already stressed election system in terms of human, physical, and technical resources,” Ardoin wrote in the plan. He also pointed to issues with the U.S. Postal Service.
Ardoin revealed his proposal as a national mail slowdown at the U.S. Postal Service continues to stoke worries that the agency will not be able to handle what is surely to be a surge of mail ballots this November.
Republican lawmakers in Louisiana had pushed for a rollback of mail-in voting before those issues came to light earlier this year, as Ardoin was crafting a plan for the spring elections, which were pushed to July and August.
Initially, Ardoin proposed allowing several categories of people to obtain absentee by mail ballots, including those who are 60 or older, those who are unable to appear in public due to concern about the virus or those caring for a child or grandchild whose school is closed.
After taking heat from his own party for that plan, Ardoin revised it to get it through the state Legislature, which by law must approve the plan. The elections then went forward under a plan where people could obtain a mail-in ballot if they had a list of serious medical condition, were advised to self-quarantine by a health provider, were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or were caring for someone told to quarantine, among others.
If the plan submitted Monday passes through the Legislature – and is approved by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards – all those reasons will go away. Only people who have tested positive will be able to get absentee ballots, along with those who are already allowed. State law already provides access to mail-in ballots to people 65 or older, those who will be temporarily outside the state and students attending school in another area, among others.
It’s likely Louisiana will still see an increase in mail-in voting from normal elections regardless. Before this year, the largest share of voters casting an absentee ballot was 4%. In the summer elections, 19% of voters cast a ballot by mail.
But according to the new election plan, only 2% of those ballots were from voters who used the COVID-19 reasons. That means people who are already allowed to vote by mail, particularly voters older than 65, used mail-in voting at a much higher clip.
"Louisiana continues to have some of the most restrictive voting options in the country during the COVID crisis. Why?" said state Rep. Mandie Landry, a New Orleans Democrat who has advocated for an expansion of absentee voting. "It says a lot that the secretary would release a 22-page plan the day before public comments are due, that is a rollback of voting options from the summer elections."
Rep. Sam Jenkins, the Shreveport-based head of the House Democratic Caucus, said the plan should not roll back voting by mail for those “directly and indirectly affected by COVID.” He said the plan should address people whose family member has tested positive or who are at higher risk from the virus.
The House and Governmental Affairs Committee will take up the plan Wednesday, and the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee will consider it Thursday. Both committees have Republican majorities.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin's emergency plan for the Nov. 3, 2020 election
Slidell state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, chair of that Senate committee and head of the Senate GOP caucus, said she thinks there are "a lot of good things in the plan," and noted the state was in a stay-at-home order the last time an emergency plan was introduced. Now the state is in Phase 2 of reopening and people at higher risk from the virus have ways to "manage their risk," she said.
"I think the best way to ensure your vote counts is to vote in person. That is the most secure way to make sure your vote counts," Hewitt said. "Whenever you’re depending on the mail ... there are a lot of opportunities for mistakes to be made."
Ardoin's election plan also allows local election officials to offer curbside dropoff of absentee ballots after early voting ends, a practice that could alleviate some issues associated with the Postal Service. People dropping off a ballot will be required to show identification and if they are dropping off a ballot for another voter they have to complete a certification statement.
The Nov. 3 presidential election would also have a 10-day early voting period under the plan. That’s three days more than the typical election, but represents a rollback of early voting from the summer election, when voters had almost two weeks. Ardoin’s plan said registration deadlines prevented him from expanding it more.
Edwards' office said the governor was reviewing the plan and pointed to his comments last week, where he called the previous emergency plan for the summer elections a "test run" that was successful.
"It would be my hope and expectation that the plan the secretary of state proffers to me and to the Legislature would look substantially similar to the one we just executed," Edwards said.
Many Republican state lawmakers voted against Ardoin’s revised plan for the summer elections because it allowed some mail-in ballots, even after it rolled them back. Since then, President Donald Trump, whose positions are often echoed in Louisiana’s State Capitol, has ramped up his rhetoric against mail-in voting.
President Trump even recently acknowledged he is starving the U.S. Postal Service of money to make it harder to process a surge in mail-in ballots, the Associated Press reported.
Fact-checkers, election experts and studies have repeatedly shown the risk of fraud, including with mail-in ballots, is extremely low. But Postal Service problems have raised worries the agency won't be able to deliver all the ballots on time in November. Mail service has slowed in Louisiana, as union representatives say mail processing machines were removed in New Orleans and staffing levels are wearing thin because of the pandemic.
Advocacy groups sued Ardoin and Edwards over the summer election plan because they claimed it didn’t go far enough to let people vote by mail amid the pandemic, but it was shot down in court. Groups sued again recently over the lack of an emergency plan for the November election.
Louisiana is one of only eight states that require an excuse for voters to access mail-in ballots, according to the New York Times. Another 33 states, representing 55% of voters, have absentee voting allowed for all voters, and another nine states mail ballots to all voters.