The sun rises as the Homer A. Plessy Community School voting location opens during election day in New Orleans, Saturday, July 11, 2020.

Voting largely along party lines, the Louisiana Senate approved Thursday evening a bill sold as a way to streamline the bitterly partisan way of setting up elections in an emergency that opponents said would remove the governor’s power to veto the plan.

“Your bill changes the balance of power,” state Sen. Jay Luneau, D-Alexandria, told Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, of Slidell and sponsor of Senate Bill 20. The legislation takes away the power of the governor as well as House and Senate committees the ability to unilaterally reject the plan submitted by the Secretary of State during emergencies, such as the pandemic and hurricanes.

Luneau predicted that the new system proposed by Hewitt, if it becomes law, would end up in an expensive court battle over the measure’s constitutionality.

Hewitt countered that the legislation addresses the often- bitter political infighting that delayed Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin from preparing for the Nov. 3 elections and Dec. 5 runoff. The plan eventually put in place for the upcoming elections was determined by U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, of Baton Rouge, who ruled in a federal lawsuit before Ardoin’s November-December protocols were adapted.

“That’s the problem: we’re all on different pages,” Hewitt said, adding that giving the commission authority would avoid those fights. “We tried to include everyone we thought was a stakeholder.””

Under current law once an emergency is declared, the secretary of state must come up with a single plan on how to hold an upcoming election. His emergency plan then must be approved by both the House & Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee, both chambers of the Louisiana Legislature and the governor. A rejection from any of the parties requires Ardoin to draft another plan.

Senate Bill 20 would create an Emergency Election Commission to decide. The commission would be chaired by the Secretary of State and consist of nine other members including the chairs of the legislative committees overseeing such plans now, the Speaker of the House and Senate President plus the heads of the party delegations in each chamber and the governor. Under the current make-up, the Commission would have seven Republicans and three Democrats, including the governor. The plans would be approved by a majority vote, though the Secretary of State would only vote in a tie.

“We’re not 50-50 in the makeup of the body, but we’re giving weight to the other party,” Hewitt said.

For the state election held over the summer, Ardoin initially issued an emergency plan that allowed wide use of absentee mail ballots. The governor agreed, but Hewitt and the Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee said no, sending Ardoin back to the drawing board.

His second plan allowed some, but much less, access to mail ballots because of the COVID-19 pandemic. His second plan won approval of all the parties, though Ardoin said he had been warned by fellow Republicans that they would not accept a similar emergency plan for the Nov. 3 election and Dec. 5 runoff .

Ardoin drafted an emergency plan for November-December voting “that would not be dead on arrival.” He proposed limiting access to absentee ballots to only those allowed under state law and those voters who test positive for COVID-19 between early voting and election day.

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State Sen. Ed Price, D-Gonzalez, said Ardoin hadn’t spoken to him or other Black senators, who would have given the secretary of state a more optimistic outlook of using his July-August procedures for the upcoming presidential election.

President Donald Trump has discredited mail-in ballots that are being used to ensure that in-person voting on Nov. 3 doesn’t turn into a super spreader of COVID-19. Trump claims that widespread use of mail ballots will lead to election fraud.

Republicans, who hold majorities in both committees and both chambers, approved Ardoin’s limited protocols. But Gov. John Bel Edwards, the only Democratic executive in the Deep South, rejected Ardoin’s plan as disenfranchising voters concerned about catching the highly infectious and often deadly coronavirus mutation.

But by that time, Judge Dick already was taking testimony in the federal lawsuit. 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.

Early voting for the November election will begin Oct. 16 and run through Oct. 27.

The state Senate approved Hewitt’s SB20 on a 22-12 vote. No Democrats voted for the measure. Only Republican Sens Patrick Connick, of Marrero, and Fred Mills, of Parks, joined those voting against the measure. The legislation now proceeds to the Louisiana House for consideration.

Voting in favor of vetting elections plans through a commission (22): President Cortez and Sens Abraham, Allain, Cathey, Cloud, Fesi, Foil, Henry, Hensgens, Hewitt, Lambert, McMath, Milligan, R. Mills, Morris, Peacock, Pope, Reese, Talbot, Ward, White and Womack.

Voting against SB20 (12): Sens Barrow, Boudreaux, Bouie, Carter, Connick, Fields, Harris, Jackson, Luneau, F. Mills, Price and Smith.

Not Voting (5): Sens Bernard, Johns, Mizell, Peterson and Tarver.

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