Proposed Louisiana emergency election plan would scale back mail-in options approved this summer

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana’s top elections official has proposed an emergency plan for holding this fall’s elections during the COVID-19 pandemic that significantly scales back absentee mail-in options that were available during the summer.

The plan will disappoint many Democrats and voting rights advocates who want to expand the ability to vote by mail, though it is more palatable to Republicans wary of mail-in voting and potential fraud. Legislative committees are scheduled to review the plan Wednesday and Thursday.

During the election held July 11, 19 percent of Louisiana voters who participated voted absentee by mail. Most did not use any of the temporary reasons called for in the last emergency plan; instead, the vast majority were people age 65 and older who always are allowed to vote absentee, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin said Monday.

But that 19 percent is still high by Louisiana standards, and the U.S. Postal Service had trouble handling the volume, he said. With much higher turnout expected in November, Louisiana could be one of a number of states that aren’t able to announce winners on Election Day even without expanded access to voting by mail.

The Nov. 3 ballot includes votes for president, Congress, and seven state constitutional amendments among other races.

“We want to be careful about being dependent upon the United States Postal Service,” Ardoin said.

The last plan was contemplated when Louisiana was still under a “stay at home” order, Ardoin said. Currently, the state is in the less-restrictive “phase two” of the White House-approved roadmap for controlling COVID-19 and could possibly be in “phase three” by November.

Generally, absentee ballots in Louisiana are limited to people 65 or older, members of the military, overseas voters, people who are hospitalized and people who won’t be in their parish on Election Day. Ardoin’s plan for the fall elections would allow voters who test positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before Election Day to use the hospitalization exemption but adds no other emergency absentee ballot provisions.

The plan used this summer added exemptions for 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. It also temporarily waived the usual requirement that first-time voters must vote in person.

“I’ve devised a plan [for which] I’m assured of legislative success,” Ardoin said. “After the last plan, I was told by numerous conservatives that they wouldn’t be able to vote for the same plan going into November.”

For approval, Ardoin needs majorities in both the state Senate and House of Representatives. Republicans dominate both chambers. He also needs Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards to sign off.

While Edwards has not said whether he could support the new plan, he has previously advocated for greater access to mail-in voting during the pandemic. He supported letting anyone with COVID-19-related health concerns vote absentee this summer, a step Republicans were unwilling to take, and ultimately approved the last plan that included additional reasons for voting absentee.

Ardoin’s plan gives local officials discretion to choose polling locations where physical distance can be maintained among voters and poll workers. The secretary of state would be authorized to enter into agreements with the Louisiana National Guard, Louisiana State Police, parish sheriffs and other law enforcement agencies to provide support to the registrars of voters, clerks of court and parish boards of elections supervisors.

The plan would increase Louisiana’s early voting period for the Nov. 3 election from seven days to 10 days, up from the standard seven days but down from the 13 days allowed for the summer elections.

Registrars of voters would be allowed to offer curbside drop off of absentee ballots after early voting ends, which could alleviate some of the stress on the Postal Service. Voters dropping off ballots would be expected to show identification. Those leaving someone else’s ballot would be required to fill out an “Absentee-By-Mail Ballot Hand Delivery Certification Statement.”

In-person voters will be encouraged to wear masks but will not be turned away if they do not. Disposable masks will be provided, according to the plan.