Like Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, every election day, my wife and I made a point of walking to our precinct. Ardoin gets misty-eyed, so do I, when describing that patriotic feeling of physically casting a vote.
When Donna Britt, my wife of 39 years, contracted ALS three years ago, we kept up the ritual best we could — until COVID-19.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a progressive nervous system disease that robs the person of immunity protection as well as muscle control, leaving the inflicted mentally sharp and sentient but unable to walk, write, speak, even sit up on their own. Since late February, the doctors, nurses, and hospice team formed a cocoon to keep her away from the fast-spreading and sometimes lethal coronavirus mutation.
Her disability has made the national battle over mail-in voting during the pandemic a lot less abstract than partisan claims that expansion of mail ballots will lead to widespread fraud, or refusal to allow more mail-in votes will amount to voter suppression.
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Ardoin was smacked around by fellow Republicans for allowing too many voters to use the mail in his first emergency plan. He went back to the drawing board and came up with a procedure for the July and August primaries that allowed fewer, though still some, voters to cast a mail ballot.
Now comes the emergency protocols for the Nov. 3 presidential election. Ardoin testified that his proposal further reduced the exceptions – only adding for the most part those voters who test positive – largely because Republican legislators had warned him not to re-up his primaries’ plan for the November and December general elections.
Thirty-four states offer a vote-by-mail option. Of the 16 states that require an excuse to vote absentee by mail, several have expanded the scope of eligibility, including Arkansas and Alabama.
The Republican National Committee is litigating the issue in 17 states. The president, according to The New York Times, has repeatedly tweeted unsupported claims that mail-in ballots could steal his reelection.
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The Republican-majority Louisiana Legislature is expected to approve Ardoin’s emergency plan for November-December when their mailed-in ballots are tabulated on Sept. 9. But that doesn’t really mean anything, as Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards also has to approve and he does not. In an unusually blunt Aug. 20 letter, Edwards called Ardoin’s plan “particularly disappointing” and lacking “common sense.”
Basically, that leaves U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, of Baton Rouge, to sort it out.
She scheduled hearings for Sept. 8-9 in a lawsuit filed by three voters, the NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice.
Absent a plan by Judge Dick or if Louisiana partisans can’t compromise, then the November vote will proceed under existing law.
The way the process works now – this was set in place long before Ardoin was secretary – voters can apply for an absentee mail ballot if they’re students or clergy or someone else expected to be out of the parish on Election Day. People in pre-trial detention and sequestered jurors can apply as can someone in the hospital or anyone over the age of 65 years. Disabled voters need to enroll in the disabled program.
The instructions are complex, but if read correctly, enrolling in the disability program requires filling out a three-page application. Some can submit a disability identification card or Social Security documents. But in Donna Britt’s situation, her main physician is required to provide a letter, as stated in one part of the instructions, and a “certificate for disability program,” a downloadable form required by another part of the instructions.
Once those documents are collected and since ALS has robbed her of her ability to use her hands, my wife will need to make her mark on the application while two witnesses watch.
Nobody faxes anymore, so the application and documents are either mailed or hand-delivered by a member of the immediate family who must produce identification and also sign at the bottom of the application.
The ballot arrives by mail. When she votes, a witness will need to sign the ballot, which can be mailed or delivered by an immediate family member.
It’s not really that burdensome, particularly compared to the 30-question literacy tests that African-American voters had to pass 60 years ago. But the procedure is still much more of a quest than “Yo, send me a ballot please” that 34 other states allow.
And that’s the problem with Louisiana’s law says Ashley Shelton, the executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice. “The existing process is complex and onerous, and there are so many people who will be forced to make a fraught decision about whether to seriously risk their health in order to vote. That's an unacceptable decision to force upon people and it ultimately amounts to voter suppression."