House committee reworks proposed changes to emergency election procedures

By David Jacobs | The Center Square

Louisiana House members on Tuesday reworked a Senate-passed set of changes to how the state plans elections during an emergency, letting governors keep their veto power over a proposed plan but giving legislators a chance to override the veto.

Under current law, 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.

Sen. Sharon Hewitt, with the backing of Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, originally proposed replacing 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. But the House governmental affairs committee last week deferred action, in part because some members felt combining the executive and legislative branches in the same commission violated the constitutional separation of powers.

Hewitt, working with committee member Rep. Barry Ivey, amended Senate Bill 20 so that the governor would retain the ability to veto a proposed plan. Gov. John Bel Edwards earlier this year shot down a plan for this fall’s elections that made it through the rest of the process, arguing that it didn’t do enough to safeguard the right to vote while protecting public health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the bill also sets up a process that would allow two-thirds of legislators in each chamber to vote to reverse the governor’s decision and approve the plan, a process not spelled out in current law. The governor would have five days to approve or reject.

The House and Senate governmental affairs committees would meet together rather than separately, which Hewitt said would streamline the process. The Secretary of State would be allowed to present more than one plan at the same meeting and committee members would be able to amend the plans he presents, giving legislators options beyond the up-or-down vote they have under the current system.

“For me, it was all about trying to be efficient and collaborative,” Hewitt said.

Rep. Sam Jenkins said he saw no problems with the current system. Hewitt raised the concern that the joint committee would be too large for every member to participate fully.

The Secretary of State’s office expressed support for the proposal. Ultimately the committee advanced the amended bill to the full House without objection.