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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.

Louisiana will keep in place expanded mail-in voting for the upcoming special congressional elections, in line with a court order last fall, after state lawmakers approved the emergency plan this week.

The state House voted 80-8 and the state Senate voted 35-3 in favor of the plan, which expands the absentee voting to the same categories of people affected by the pandemic who were allowed to vote by mail in the fall elections. Lawmakers voted by mail ballot for the plan.

“I am pleased that this emergency plan passed with overwhelming, bipartisan support at every step of this process. This plan is a pragmatic response to the recent unprecedented surge in the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican. “Together, the Clerks of Court, Registrars of Voters and their staff along with the entire SOS elections staff will provide the people of Louisiana safe, secure and accurate elections to which they are accustomed.”

The emergency plan loosening the state’s mail-in voting during the pandemic drew little controversy, an abrupt change from the fall. Ardoin and Republican state lawmakers pushed to limit mail voting during the pandemic last fall, but Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, refused to sign off. Instead, a federal judge ordered the state to allow people to access mail ballots if they meet one of a list of requirements.

Those include people 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.

In crafting the plan for the upcoming spring elections, Ardoin previously said “the courts have spoken.”

After the court order, Ardoin put forth a nearly identical election plan for the upcoming elections, which include two special congressional contests. As of Thursday, a dozen people had already qualified for the vacant 2nd Congressional District left vacant by Cedric Richmond, who left for a senior post in the Biden White House. In the 5th District, Julia Letlow and six other candidates qualified for the seat left vacant by her husband Luke Letlow, who died of complications from COVID-19 last month.

Both congressional elections will take place March 20, with an April runoff if necessary. 

Mail voting soared to record levels in the 2020 presidential election in Louisiana. But that was largely because people who are already allowed to vote by mail--namely people who are 65 and older--took advantage of the absentee ballots in record numbers. Early voting also soared, though Ardoin did not include extra early voting days for the spring elections, like there was in November, citing expected low turnout.

Only 5,476 people in November and 1,217 people in December took advantage of the COVID-19 mail ballots, according to Ardoin's office. 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com.