An emergency election plan that prompted a partisan war over mail ballots last fall easily passed two legislative committees Tuesday, clearing the way for Louisiana to keep in place expanded mail balloting for upcoming local and congressional elections.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, proposed the same procedures for the February, March and April elections as the state had in place for the Dec. 5 contest, at the direction of a federal judge. The plan allows people who meet certain criteria, including those with underlying health conditions and others affected by the pandemic, to access absentee ballots.

The Republican-led Senate and Governmental Affairs and House and Governmental Affairs committees advanced the plan to the full Legislature without objection Tuesday. The votes suggest Louisiana may avoid the partisan battling over the election rules that took place last fall. The full Legislature and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards must still sign off on the plan.

The Governor has reviewed the emergency election plan to ensure it protects the voting rights and health of the public during the pandemic and will approve it.

Ardoin said “the courts have spoken” on the issue, and scaling back the mail ballots would likely lead to another expansion of absentee ballots regardless. “We need to make certain voting is safe and can take place amongst this pandemic,” he said.

The legislative committee votes were a turnaround from the fall balloting plans, when GOP lawmakers balked at an expansion of mail ballots ahead of a presidential contest in which President Donald Trump railed against the practice. Ardoin said last fall he couldn’t win support for the same plan from the GOP-dominated Legislature. Instead, he proposed a plan approved by those two committees that didn’t expand mail ballots to people affected by COVID-19, prompting a veto from Gov. Edwards. A federal judge then stepped in to order the state to expand mail ballots.

But even with those protocols in place for November and December elections, a small number of people – 5,476 in November and 1,217 in December – took advantage of the COVID-19 mail ballots.

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“With all the teeth gnashing we did over the COVID ballot, an extraordinarily small number of people took advantage of that ballot,“ said Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee Chair Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell.

Mail voting did soar to record levels in the 2020 presidential contest, but largely because people 65 and older, who are already allowed to vote by mail under current law, took advantage of the practice. Early voting also soared during the election.

The plan advanced by lawmakers Tuesday allows people to receive a mail ballot 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.

It doesn’t include extra days of early voting that were in place for the November presidential election. Those extra days were not required by the judge for the December election because of an expected drop-off in turnout, and Ardoin said he expects turnout to be low for the upcoming elections.

The elections affected by the new plan include a special legislative election in southwest Louisiana next month to fill the state House seat left vacant by Stephen Dwight, who was elected District Attorney of Calcasieu Parish. In addition, the plan affects March and April elections that are expected to be the dates of the primaries and runoff elections, respectively, for U.S. House seats left vacant by Luke Letlow and Cedric Richmond. Letlow died of complications of COVID-19 last month, days before being sworn in. Richmond said he will soon leave for a senior post in President-elect Joe Biden’s White House.

Governors don’t have the power to appoint a U.S. House member to fill a vacancy until the election is held. Instead, the governor sets the date for a special election, according to Louisiana's election law. 

Email Sam Karlin at skarlin@theadvocate.com