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State Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, standing right, checks on pending legislation in the Senate Chamber during an earlier session in this file photo from Monday June 1, 2020.

A Louisiana Senate committee Wednesday advanced legislation peddled as a bipartisan way to streamline election protocols that ended up being decided by a federal court after intense bickering between Louisiana lawmakers over access to absentee mail ballots.

Everyone would have a seat at the table under the proposal, Republican supporters claim, but the measure would minimize a governor’s say-so.

The Senate and Governmental Affair Committee also approved without opposition and little discussion a second bill that would allow parish elections commissioners four days, instead of one, to prepare mailed-in ballots for the count on election day. So many voters have requested mail ballots that local officials fear they won’t be able to count them all in time.

But it was the system that creates emergency election protocols that received the most attention.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has repeatedly complained about how the angry debate slowed his work. 

“This lengthy, cumbersome process does not provide the necessary flexibility to administer an election during these trying times,” Ardoin testified, adding that Senate Bill 20 would put Louisiana more in line with other states..

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. Any rejection among any of the parties requires Ardoin to draft another plan.

The legislation was sponsored by state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who chairs the Senate & Governmental Affairs panel. The measure would allow the secretary of state to submit several different emergency plans to choose between rather than having to start all over if one is rejected.

SB20 would create an Emergency Election Commission to decide. The commission would be chaired by the Secretary of State and consist of 10 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.

“What I like about this bill,” said Sen. Barry Milligan, the Shreveport Republican sitting in as chair while Hewitt presented the measure, “Everybody does have a seat at the table and that’s obviously kind of a theme of our session.”

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 that limited access to absentee ballots to only those allowed under state law and voters who test positive for COVID-19 between early voting and election day. Louisiana’s absentee balloting procedure is usually limited to people 65 or older, members of the military, overseas voters, people who are hospitalized, people who are physically disabled and people who won’t be in their parish for the election.

The Republican dominated committees and legislative chambers were fine with that plan, but Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards rejected the protocols.

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, of Baton Rouge, weighed in through a previously filed federal legal challenge. Dick added extra days for early voting and reinstated 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.

Louisiana Republicans, in general, have embraced President Donald Trump’s contention that mail ballots are rife with widespread corruption that would steal his chance at reelection. The president has said he may not concede the election if he thinks the returns show fraud. Trump rarely cites evidence for his fraud contention and when the president does, the examples he uses have been exaggerated.

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

Ardoin said about 190,000 voters have requested absentee mail ballots with another month to go before the Oct. 30 deadline. Usually the requests run less than 50,000, though in the 2016 presidential contest about 63,000 asked to mail their ballots. Senate Bill 22, which the Senate panel also approved, would give parish elections commissioners four days, instead of one, to prepare mail ballots. 

Senate Bill 22, which the Senate panel also approved, would give parish elections commissioners four days, instead of one, to prepare mail ballots. Each needs to be checked for requirements, such as a witness’s signature. Those ballots failing to meet the requirements, along with those that don’t vote in every election – a lot of voters skip items, such as constitutional amendments – need to reviewed individually in person. The rest are stacked into scanners that tally the votes on the mailed-in ballots. Commissioners can’t count votes until Election Day under state law, but adding days to review the submissions will save time.

“In this election, of course, the presidential election with extraordinarily high number of absentee ballots having already been requested already turned in,” Hewitt testified about the need for legislative approval of her measure. “The secretary believes if we do not do this the likelihood of us being able to get results on election night is very small, okay, because it’s such a manpower intensive operation. And so, this is going to help us ensure that we have every opportunity to get results timely on election night.”

Email Mark Ballard at mballard@theadvocate.com.