Gov. John Bel Edwards said Tuesday he won’t support the emergency election plan put forth by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, setting up a donnybrook with Ardoin and other Republicans that could end up with the federal courts deciding how Louisiana voters will cast ballots in the Nov. 3 presidential election.
The Democratic governor, who previously worked with Ardoin on an emergency election plan for the summer elections, said the November plan is a "woefully inadequate" one he won’t sign unless it is revised.
Ardoin dug in, issuing a statement saying he won't make any changes. That means the state is moving toward the November presidential election without any changes to address the pandemic.
If that happens, a court could step in to mandate the state take certain steps to make voting safer for voters, as Edwards noted at a press conference Tuesday. A host of other states have made significant changes to protect voters, and nearly all allow any voter to cast a ballot by mail.
“I do not support his plan. I don’t believe that it accommodates all the voters that should be accommodated in the public health emergency,” Edwards said. “I don’t believe that plan goes far enough. It doesn’t take into account the seriousness of this pandemic.”
"I will not be altering the plan I submitted," Ardoin said Tuesday in a prepared statement. "The plan the governor prefers was developed under a stay-at-home-order; our state is currently in Phase 2. I negotiated the best possible plan that could pass the legislative committees, and if this issue must be resolved in the courts, I hope any ruling would include the critical mechanisms our office needs to administer the election."
The state House & Governmental Affairs committee meets Wednesday and the Senate & Governmental Affairs committee meets Thursday to vet the proposed emergency plan that limits who can vote absentee by mail.
The committee hearings will go ahead as scheduled, Slidell Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt said Tuesday upon learning the governor’s position.
Both legislative committees and both of the chambers of the Legislature, all with GOP majorities, as well as the Democratic governor, must agree to the need for an emergency declaration and that Ardoin’s election plan properly addresses the crisis. Edwards declared an emergency Tuesday but said he rejects the proposed fix.
“I don’t think we need to make as many provisions for COVID issues now as we did when we considered the plan in April,” Hewitt said. “If he (Edwards) doesn’t support it, we end up with the current plan elections law, which would be much worse for our citizens.”
State law already provides access to mail-in ballots to people 65 or older, those who will be temporarily outside the state and students attending school in another area, among others. It is also likely Louisiana will still see a surge in mail-in balloting from those who meet the existing requirements, as the state experienced in summer elections.
The governor specifically cited mail-in ballots as a sticking point. Ardoin’s proposal only allows one category of people to qualify for absentee ballots if they don’t meet the existing requirements: people who test positive for COVID-19. Edwards said the plan should at minimum allow people access to mail-in ballots if they are quarantining, caring for someone with COVID-19 or at higher risk from the virus because of health issues.
Ardoin, a Republican, was blasted by his own party earlier this year when he presented an election plan that expanded mail-in voting to cover people concerned about the virus, those at higher risk from the virus, those caring for a child or grandchild whose school is closed and others. After Republican lawmakers pushed back, Ardoin revised the plan to include slightly fewer categories but still allowed a list of people to obtain mail-in ballots.
Under the compromise, voters could cast mail-in absentee ballots if they had serious medical conditions or were quarantined or taking care of someone quarantined.
Many of those GOP lawmakers said they wouldn't approve a similar contingencies for the Nov. 3 election. President Donald Trump, whose positions are echoed frequently in Louisiana’s GOP-dominated State Capitol, has spent weeks railing against mail-in voting by claiming it would invite fraud into elections. He has also acknowledged he was refusing additional funding for the U.S. Postal Service to tank the prospect of expanded mail-in voting when voters cast their ballots to decide whether to reelect him.
Studies have repeatedly shown fraud is extremely rare in all types of voting, including by mail. Meanwhile, cuts to the U.S. Postal Service have resulted in a national slowdown of mail that have raised legitimate concerns about whether ballots will arrive on time; Ardoin’s proposed plan would allow local officials to set up boxes where people could drop off absentee ballots instead.
The plan for the November elections revoked almost all the expanded reasons people could access mail-in ballots. Under Ardoin's new proposal, crafted to appease Republican lawmakers, only people who have tested positive for COVID-19 would have the option of mailing in their ballot if they don’t already qualify for absentee voting.
Louisiana under that plan would be one of only eight states that require an excuse for a voter to receive an absentee ballot. The rest either mail all voters a ballot or allow anyone to obtain a mail-in ballot.
A lawsuit brought by the NAACP, Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and others that challenges Louisiana's election protocols is already pending in Baton Rouge federal court.
Ashley Shelton, executive director for the Power Coalition, said Tuesday they were moving ahead with the lawsuit, which seeks to give every voter access to absentee ballots, among other changes.
“This is about democracy,” Shelton said. “This is not a partisan issue. This is literally about people being able to access their vote without putting their lives in danger.”