A state Senate bill aimed at lessening a governor’s ability to influence how Louisiana holds elections during times of emergency, advanced Tuesday to the full House after its chief sponsor backed down a bit.
Slidell Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, who sponsored Senate Bill 20, initially wanted a commission, of which the governor would have been a part, to agree to the Secretary of State’s emergency plan that the Legislature then would have final approval. Though the legislation breezed through the state Senate, Hewitt ran into intense opposition in the House & Governmental Affairs committee over SB20’s marginalizing of the governor’s role.
On Tuesday, in her second try before the panel, Hewitt agreed to allow a governor to veto after the plan is approved by the legislative elections oversight committees and both chambers. The governor would have five days to agree or veto. If the governor vetoes, legislators could override if two-thirds in each chamber agrees via mail ballots.
Republican Central Rep. Barry Ivey, a member of the panel, helped rewrite SB20, coming up with the structure allowing the governor more power to determine the plan but giving legislators the ability to override. "I wanted to make sure we maintained the checks and balances," Ivey said.
“I don’t see anything wrong with the process the way it is,” said state Rep. Sam Jenkins, of Shreveport and head of the House Democratic minority as well as a member of the House committee.
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Under current law, once an emergency is declared the Secretary of State proposes a plan that lays out how elections are held. The governor, the House and Senate elections oversight committees and both chambers of the Legislature, all five, must agree to the plan. Any one of them refusing would send the Secretary of State back to the drawing board or require the state to hold its elections under existing law.
Under the provisions of Hewitt’s bill, the Secretary of State would be allowed to present more than one plan at the same time to allow legislators to choose between options.
“It’s the Secretary of State’s plan, we can draw it up for him. But we could add something that would be impossible for him to do. So, he wanted to control the plan and allow us to choose,” Hewitt said.
The proposal comes after Ardoin offered an emergency plan for the Nov. 3 and Dec. 5 elections that won support from the majority-GOP House and Senate but was blocked by Edwards. The governor said the plan didn't do enough to expand mail-in balloting for the pandemic.
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But by that time, U.S. District Judge Shelley Dick, of Baton Rouge, already was taking testimony in a federal lawsuit filed by voters wanting access to mail ballots because they feared being infected with COVID-19 while waiting in line to vote on election day.
Dick ruled, adding extra days for early voting and reinstating Ardoin’s summer plan for the November-December elections by expanding absentee options to allow registered voters to seek an absentee ballot if they are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of medical conditions; are subject to a quarantine order; are advised by a health provider to self-quarantine; are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or are caring for someone who is isolated because of the disease.
The House committee approved the rewritten legislation and advance the bill to the full House for consideration. If passed by the House, the state Senate would have to okay the House changes to send SB20 to the governor’s desk.