Trial begins for Louisiana’s COVID-19 election plan

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A federal judge said Tuesday she is “inclined to agree” that requiring voters with COVID-19 concerns to get a doctor’s certification before using the state’s disability excuse to vote absentee places a cost burden on the right to vote.

U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick said such a policy also would put doctors in the “odd position” of offering a legal opinion about whether a voter’s health concerns fall under the disability statute.

Three Louisiana voters, the state chapter of the NAACP, and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice have sued Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin. The plaintiffs argue the state is forcing Louisiana residents to choose between voting and protecting themselves and their communities from COVID-19. Defenders of the state’s emergency election plan say it protects the integrity of the state’s elections while also protecting public health during the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers in April approved an emergency plan for this year’s summer elections that expanded early voting from seven days to 13, relocated polling locations from senior centers, and added new COVID-19-related reasons to request an absentee ballot. But Ardoin said legislative leaders told him they could not support using the same plan for the elections set for November and December.

Many Republicans are wary of voting by mail, which they say is more susceptible to fraud than in-person voting. Ardoin says he doesn’t want voters to rely on the U.S. Postal Service, which he says struggled with the volume of mail-in ballots even during the low-turnout summer elections.

Ardoin in August presented a plan that would allow voters who test positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before Election Day to vote absentee but includes no other emergency absentee ballot provisions. 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 still could vote by mail as usual.

Attorney General Jeff Landry has issued an opinion (which does not carry the force of law) that a voter who is diagnosed with COVID-19, who is subject to a quarantine order while awaiting a COVID-19 diagnosis, or is at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications would qualify to vote absentee under the state’s existing disability excuse so long as a medical professional certifies that the voter is disabled. Landry’s office is representing the state in the lawsuit.

Though Edwards is a defendant in the lawsuit, in a court filing he has argued the emergency election plan used this summer should be used in the fall elections. Plaintiffs’ attorneys made the same argument Tuesday. They say voters with underlying health concerns, and caretakers of high-risk patients, should not need a doctor’s note to vote absentee.

Attorneys defending Ardoin’s plan said the disability provision long has required a doctor’s certification. They say people with serious underlying health conditions already should be seeing a doctor and should not have trouble getting a note, adding that emergency rooms are not allowed to turn away patients who can’t pay.

Tuesday’s hearing lasted about an hour. Testimony is scheduled to be heard between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Wednesday.

Louisiana voters in November will choose among candidates for president, the U.S. House of Representatives, one U.S. Senate seat, two spots on the Louisiana Supreme Court, and one seat on the Public Service Commission. They also will elect judges, prosecutors, various local positions and consider several proposed state constitutional amendments. Runoffs where necessary will be held in December.