Louisiana state lawmakers on Wednesday spent more than five hours debating the best way to handle the November presidential election in the midst of a pandemic, but Louisiana’s elections appear likely to be handled by the courts – or take place without protocols to address the virus – after Republican lawmakers and the Democratic governor refused to budge over mail-in voting.

A divided House and Governmental Affairs Committee approved an election plan crafted by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin with the aim of garnering enough Republican support to make it through the Legislature. The vote was 8-6, with one Republican, state Rep. Barry Ivey, of Central, crossing party lines to vote against it.

The vote effectively means the state is barreling toward the November election without new rules to address the virus. Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat who worked with the Republican Ardoin on the previous election plan, is refusing to approve the plan.

That means Louisiana won’t have any plans in place to allow people infected with COVID-19, quarantined or at higher risk from the virus to vote without going to the polls, unless the courts step in. Either side could also soften their stance, but it appeared Wednesday that would not happen.

“What we know is the secretary of state’s plan will not be implemented because both the Legislature and I have to approve it,” Edwards said on his monthly radio show. “I don’t know if the Legislature will approve it. I will not.”

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Republican lawmakers who support Ardoin’s plan said Wednesday they believed more access to mail-in ballots isn’t needed. Ardoin said he believed people who were ordered by their doctor to quarantine or stay home because of underlying health conditions might be able to work around the new restrictions by having their doctor declare them temporarily disabled, thus giving them access to mail-in ballots.

"I think you're doing the best you can in trying to balance the safety of citizens with the protection of our sacred right to vote," said state Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs. "We all want voter integrity and I think this plan is the best way to do it."

Louisiana will be an outlier in its election protocols unless the courts step in. Only six other states require voters to provide an excuse to vote by mail, while 43 others either mail all voters a ballot or allow any voter to obtain an absentee ballot.

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Ardoin warned of “profound consequences” if Louisiana holds the November 3 presidential election with no protocols in place to address the pandemic. Voters who test positive would have to either appear in public or not vote. Early voting would take place in smaller facilities where social distancing might not be possible. Absentee ballots would not be able to be dropped off at curbside boxes and election results would be delayed, among other things, Ardoin said.

It is possible a judge could step in to mandate the state take certain steps to protect voters. A lawsuit brought by voting rights advocates is already playing out in federal court in Baton Rouge over the issue. 

Even without an expansion of vote-by-mail to cover more people, the election will almost certainly feature a surge in mail ballots. That’s because a list of people that includes anyone over the age of 65 can already vote by mail, and those people voted absentee at a much higher clip in the recently-held summer elections, leading Ardoin to estimate half a million could cast a mail ballot in November.

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Ardoin said repeatedly that he presented a plan that could pass through the Legislature, though he conceded it is “probably not” the best possible plan, saying that’s not possible to produce because of the politics surrounding mail-in voting. He also acknowledged that he knew Edwards would not support the plan, but he has refused to change it. Earlier this year, members of his own party rejected a proposal he crafted with Edwards’ support for the summer elections.

“This process has boxed us in and put me between a rock and a hard place,” Ardoin said, noting lawmakers didn’t have the option of amending the plan.

The proposal would roll back the categories of people who could vote by mail significantly from the recently-held summer elections, offering only those who have tested positive for the virus to obtain mail ballots if they don’t meet the normal requirements.

That’s a departure from the summer elections, when people who had serious medical conditions, were quarantined or caring for someone who was quarantined could obtain absentee ballots. Relatively few – 1,863 voters – took advantage of those reasons in the July 11 election, though that contest saw far lower turnout than the upcoming presidential election will have.

Democrats and at least one Republican blasted the plan as inadequate. The governor has said he thinks at a minimum people should be able to vote by mail if they are quarantining, caring for someone with COVID-19 or at higher risk because of health issues.

“Anything to suppress a vote is on the wrong side of history for me,” said Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa.

Ivey, the only Republican to vote against the plan, implored his colleagues to reject the proposal and have both sides come to an agreement to pass a plan similar to the one for the summer elections. Ardoin has said he doesn’t have time to craft a new plan if either side rejects this one.

“Passing this plan today virtually guarantees we’re passing our responsibility to the courts,” Ivey said. “I don’t want to hand this over to the courts.”

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com