Louisiana’s chief elections official is proposing an emergency plan for the February and Spring elections mirroring the expansion of absentee mail voting allowed during the presidential election this fall, though without additional days of early voting.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, submitted his plan to lawmakers ahead of legislative hearings next week. If approved by lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, the state will have in place the same mail-in voting expansion as the summer, November and December elections.
It doesn't feature the extra days of early voting that were included in Louisiana’s November presidential election. Those extra days helped power early voting to record levels in the state.
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Tyler Brey, a spokesman for Ardoin, said a federal judge's ruling that required additional absentee balloting during the pandemic didn't require more early voting days for the lower-turnout December election. Because of that, Ardoin didn't include the additional days of early voting for the upcoming elections, which are expected to be lower turnout.
"We are following basically exactly how the court ordered us to" conduct the elections in the fall, Brey said.
Ardoin’s plan comes after a partisan battle erupted over the same mail-in voting expansion for the presidential election. At the behest of Republican lawmakers, Ardoin created a plan for the November election that included no accommodations for people affected by COVID-19 to vote by mail. As a result, the governor refused to sign it, and a federal judge stepped in to order the same expansion of absentee ballots as the state used in the summer elections.
State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee that will review the proposal, said it needs “a few tweaks” but that she agrees with the basic outline of the plan.
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"While I still believe that the best way to ensure your vote is counted is to vote in person, I recognize that there may be a small part of our population that will be unable to vote in person, predominantly the over 65 group,” Hewitt said. “The COVID absentee ballot, which was a point of contention in the previous plans, was rarely utilized in the fall elections, but will be useful for some people in the spring elections, particularly since we will not have an extended early voting period in the spring as we did in the November election."
While the state had additional reasons to request a mail ballot for the recent elections, the vast majority of those who took advantage of it were already allowed under state law to vote absentee because they were 65 years or older. Relatively few people – though still several thousand – used the COVID-19 excuses to vote by mail.
The emergency protocols, if approved by lawmakers and the governor, would be in place for the February, March and April elections. In February, voters in outgoing state Rep. Stephen Dwight’s district will cast ballots for his replacement after he was elected District Attorney in Calcasieu Parish, with a March runoff.
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The March and April elections are expected to feature the primary and runoff, respectively, for the race to replace U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, who is leaving for a senior role in President-elect Joe Biden’s White House. The elections in 2021 will likely see much smaller turnout than the presidential election.
However, Gov. Edwards has not yet set a date for the election. Spokeswoman Christina Stephens said he would set a date when Richmond submits his resignation. The March and April elections are already scheduled for municipal elections.
Edwards received the plan proposed by Ardoin Monday evening, Stephens said, and would review it in the coming days.
“We know we have several months left of the pandemic,” Stephens said. “If there are elections happening the pandemic needs to be a major factor in making the plan and putting the plan in place.”
Edwards insisted on an expansion of mail-in voting for the presidential election in November and the December runoffs in Louisiana, and blocked Ardoin’s original plan. As a result, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ruled in September that the state needed the expanded mail voting to account for the pandemic.
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In October, Attorney General Jeff Landry, a Republican who defended the exclusion of more mail-in voting, appealed the ruling along with Ardoin.
The new plan allows people to access mail ballots if they are at higher risk of COVID-19 because of serious underlying medical conditions, subject to a “medically necessary quarantine or isolation order,” advised by a health provider to quarantine, experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking a diagnosis or are caring for someone who is quarantining or in isolation. That mirrors the rules for the summer and fall elections.