House committee defers action on new emergency election procedure; proposed changes still alive

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

A Louisiana House committee on Wednesday parked a proposal to eliminate the governor’s ability to veto a legislatively approved emergency election plan.

Under the current system, the governor and secretary of state can declare an emergency that allows for changes to how an election is run. That happened this year in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Committees of the state House of Representatives and Senate must certify the emergency and approve the secretary of state’s plan to address the emergency conditions. Majorities of both chambers and the governor all must approve the plan before it goes into effect.

Bill 20 by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, would replace the committees’ role with a 10-member election commission made up of the secretary of state, the governor, legislative leaders and the chairs of the two major parties from both chambers. The secretary of state, who is the state’s chief election officer, would have a chance to present more than one plan at the same commission meeting.

The secretary of state only would vote in the event of a tie, and a legislator who is both a chamber leader and a party leader would have the power to appoint a designee to fill the additional role, Hewitt said. The full House and Senate still would have to approve the plan, but not the governor.

Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin supports the changes, and Hewitt said the bill is “largely their idea,” referring to Ardoin’s office. She said the current process is slow and cumbersome, and if a plan is shot down at any point, the secretary of state must “go back to square one and start over.”

Rep. Royce Duplessis, a New Orleans Democrat, blamed the failure of Ardoin’s most recent plan in part on his office taking too long to present it. He also questioned why leaders of the two largest parties should have dedicated seats, though Ardoin argues that provision ensures the minority party has a voice in the process.

Rep. Barry Ivey, a Baton Rouge Republican, said the plan violates the constitutional separation of powers by creating a commission that combines the executive and legislative branches. But he withdrew his motion to involuntarily defer the bill, which would have killed it, in favor of letting Hewitt tweak her proposal and present it at a future House and Governmental Affairs Committee meeting.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed a plan for this fall’s elections that made it through the process, saying it didn’t do enough to protect both public health and the right to vote. Instead, a district court ordered implementation of a plan, similar to one used during the state’s two summer elections, that called for more opportunities to vote by mail than Republicans preferred.

Ardoin’s office has asked the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals to review that decision, though any decision by the appeals court will not affect November’s election.