By MELINDA DESLATTE | Associated Press
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana voters are waiting to learn if they’ll face a stark choice to cast their ballots this fall: Do you stay home if you’ve been exposed to the coronavirus and skip the election? Or do you violate public health guidance about isolation and stand in line with dozens of other people to vote, possibly spreading the highly contagious virus?
The emergency elections plan put forth by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and backed by Republican lawmakers could force people in quarantine to choose between the safety of others and their voting rights.
That plan won’t happen because Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards intends to block it, so a federal judge is expected to decide the rules for the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional election and the state’s Dec. 5 runoff.
That leaves voters uncertain about what options they’ll have — and if their state will require them to make risky choices to vote.
The plan offered by Ardoin, the Republican elections chief, provides no way for someone urged to isolate because they were exposed to the COVID-19 disease caused the coronavirus to seek an absentee-by-mail ballot unless they meet criteria in existing law.
Louisiana’s absentee balloting procedure is 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.
Ardoin’s plan for the November and December elections would allow any voter testing positive for the coronavirus during and after early voting but before Election Day to use the hospitalization excuse to get an absentee ballot. No other changes are proposed to who can use the absentee process.
No expansion is offered for the special circumstances of a COVID-19 quarantine, for people at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or for caregivers to those particularly vulnerable to the illness.
“When you’re under a quarantine order, we want those people to stay at home for 14 days. That’s a community health risk,” Dr. Tina Stefanski, the state’s medical director for the Acadiana region, told House lawmakers.
She described advising people at higher risk from the coronavirus to stay home and said voting in person “would be an unsafe environment for those individuals.”
Over two days of legislative hearings, Ardoin didn’t suggest his plan was the most appropriate one to deal with the ongoing pandemic. Instead, he said it was the best plan he could craft and still win enough support in a majority-GOP Legislature with Republican lawmakers who object to the expansion of absentee-by-mail balloting.
“I have to go pragmatically where the votes are,” Ardoin told lawmakers.
Sobbing as he lamented partisan politics, the polarization of the Louisiana Legislature and the “hate mail” he’s received, Ardoin said during a Senate committee hearing: “This is not the best plan. Unfortunately, it’s the best plan I thought I could get passed.”
It could leave COVID-19 impacted voters standing in polling place lines where masks will be “strongly encouraged” but not required. And it would fly in the face of guidance from infectious disease experts and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for people in quarantine and at greatest vulnerability to the coronavirus.
Lawmakers will vote by mail ballot — due Sept. 8 — on whether they support Ardoin’s plan after Republicans on oversight committees voted in a near-bloc to advance the plan to the full House and Senate.
But Edwards, whose backing is needed for the plan to take effect, won’t agree to Ardoin’s proposal.
“He just didn’t put forth a plan that responded to the emergency itself,” the governor said. “My commitment to the voters is that they should not have to risk their health in order to vote.”
Slidell Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Republican who chairs the Senate committee overseeing elections issues, offered more outspoken support for Ardoin’s plan than the secretary of state did. Hewitt said mail-in ballots go through more steps and are handled by more people, opening up “the opportunity for more mistakes.”
“I believe that the best, most secure vote is the one that you make in person,” she said.
Sen. Ed Price, a Democrat from Gonzales, said the proposal appears to suppress the vote. Rep. Barry Ivey, the only Republican so far to oppose Ardoin’s plan, said it “puts people’s health in jeopardy.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Melinda Deslatte has covered Louisiana politics for The Associated Press since 2000. Follow her at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte