Voters and advocates sue Louisiana officials over COVID-19 election plans

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Four voters and two advocacy groups have sued Louisiana officials, alleging the state is not doing enough to protect the right to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic.

State lawmakers have approved an emergency voting plan crafted by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Attorney General Jeff Landry meant to address public health concerns related to in-person voting. But the plan applies only to a presidential preference and municipal primary election currently scheduled for July and a municipal general election planned for August, not the federal elections set for the fall.

Even for the summer elections, Louisiana’s plan doesn’t allow enough people to vote by mail, the four voters, the Louisiana NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice argue.

The plan temporarily adds being subject to a medically necessary quarantine, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or awaiting a diagnosis, caring for someone who is quarantined, or having a chronic health condition that imparts a higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications as valid reasons to use an absentee ballot. It also temporarily waives the usual requirement that first-time voters must vote in person.

But the absentee voting excuses laid out in the plan are either too restrictive, too vague or both, the lawsuit argues. For example, one provision says voters subject to a medically necessary quarantine can vote by mail, but doesn’t define “medically necessary.”

“Notably, none of the COVID-19 excuses in the Emergency Plan apply to the many thousands of voters who reasonably fear that voting in person may result in their contracting or unintentionally contributing to the spread of COVID-19,” the plaintiffs say. “Defendants have forced Louisiana voters to make an untenable decision between risking their health and the health of their families and communities or giving up their fundamental right to vote.”

According to the lawsuit, plaintiff Jasmine Pogue suffers from environmentally induced asthma and has a history of upper respiratory infections. But because she doesn’t require asthma medication regularly, her condition doesn’t qualify as severe enough to use an absentee ballot under the plan, so she would have to risk “virus exposure – and perhaps her life – at an in-person voting site.”

Jane Chandler, who suffers from a lung condition likely brought on by her cancer treatments, has taken “extreme precautions” to avoid personal interactions that would put her at risk of coronavirus infection. She’s old enough to qualify for an absentee ballot, but fears obtaining a witness signature as the plan requires “would pose a grave risk to her health,” the lawsuit says.

Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, supported an early version of the plan that would have let anyone with pandemic-related health concerns vote absentee. But Republicans, who hold large majorities in both houses of the Louisiana Legislature, found that proposal far too broad.

Many Republicans say absentee voting favors Democrats and is rife with fraud, though advocates say there is little evidence for either claim.

The Center Square reached out to Ardoin, who as Secretary of State is in charge of the state’s elections, and will update this story if his office responds.

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