Louisiana Legislature defers action on COVID-19 emergency election plan

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

The Louisiana Legislature on Wednesday deferred action on the secretary of state’s emergency plan to conduct this year’s elections amid the COVID-19 pandemic.T

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said he tried to find a middle path that lawmakers on the left and the right could accept, if not embrace, but his fellow Republicans said they were too worried about election integrity to move forward.

“We will work with you as much as we can,” said state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Republican chairwoman of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. “We still have to do our due diligence.”

Senators said Ardoin can tweak his proposal and try again, though he said he is on a tight timeline.

“We have to act now,” he said. “I think you’re setting us up for failure.”

The elections will go forward one way or the other, Ardoin noted when reached by phone after the meeting, but time is running out to implement safeguards that he believes are needed to protect public health.

Gov. John Bel Edwards already has postponed this year’s elections twice, citing public health concerns. The presidential preference primary and municipal primary election now is scheduled for July 11 while a state general election is slated for Aug. 15.

“No one should have to choose between exercising their right to vote and potentially endangering themselves and others,” Edwards said Wednesday.

Ardoin has said the lack of an emergency plan could lead to another delay. But pushing the general election back to November’s national Election Day would create problems for local governments that want to certify their tax and bond election results in time to plan for the following year, he said.

For example, voter approval is required for a pending sale of East Jefferson General Hospital, meant to address the hospital’s financial struggles. If the vote is pushed back to November, the deal falls through, Ardoin said.

Canceling the presidential primary was discussed, since the major-party nominations are settled, he said. But that election still is needed so parties can elect their leaders and decide how to allocate delegates, Ardoin said, adding that each parish party committee has an appointment to the parish board of election supervisors.

“We were putting the parish board of election supervisors in jeopardy,” Ardoin said.

There are also numerous logistical issues that must be worked out, such as moving polling locations currently planned for senior centers, recruiting new commissioners to replace older ones who are concerned about participating, and making sure the state has enough time to acquire needed supplies that are in high demand such as personal protective equipment for poll workers and specialized paper for absentee ballots.

Ardoin said he didn’t want to get sued for denying anyone their right to vote. He also said he didn’t want to oversee a repeat of the recent Wisconsin election, where numerous polling locations were shut down, many poll workers didn’t show up, and voters waited in line for several hours in the midst of the pandemic.

Ardoin’s plan would expand early voting in Louisiana from seven days to 13 for the two upcoming elections, with the goal of having fewer people in the room to vote at once. It also would temporarily expand the list of reasons for which voters can request a mail-in absentee ballot. Voters with existing health problems and those under stay-at-home or quarantine orders or who are caring for someone who can’t leave home are on the list, along with those age 60 or older (the usual cutoff is 65).

Also included are voters who say they have health concerns about going out in public on election day. Some lawmakers pointed to that provision in particular as being overly broad, since anyone could claim they have concerns.

Ardoin said he wasn’t thrilled with that last provision either but said it came out of his negotiations with Edwards’ office. But he also acknowledged that anyone seeking an absentee ballot can claim they will be out of state and no one checks on election day to make sure that’s true, yet there hasn’t been a wave of absentee ballot fraud.

Republican skeptics who opposed the plan, including Lenar Whitney representing the state GOP, said they were worried the plan was overly broad. Democrats and voting rights activists expressed disappointment that it didn’t further expand voting by mail.

The Senate committee discussed two possibilities Wednesday: granting Ardoin emergency authority and approving his plan. They deferred on the first point, with only Democratic Sen. Ed Price voting to move forward, making the second question moot.

The House and Governmental Affairs Committee, meeting Wednesday afternoon knowing what happened on the Senate side earlier in the day, unanimously agreed with Ardoin that emergency authority was warranted but deferred action on the plan itself.

Vendors had told him the drop-dead date to acquire the paper for absentee ballots and scanners to handle the additional volume would be April 24, Ardoin told The Center Square after the meeting. If there’s no wiggle room, he’s basically out of time, he said.

“Maybe we can get some slack from our vendors,” Ardoin said when asked about next steps. “The real thing is whether or not we can implement things in a timely manner so we don’t trip ourselves up going into the elections.”

Ardoin still needs approval from both committees, both of which would have to schedule new meetings, and a majority of both bodies who would vote by mail. Lawmakers would have five days to vote once receiving those ballots.

He still hopes to speak with legislative leaders and the governor to come up with something all sides can support.

“I’m concerned, to say the least,” he said.