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House Committee Approves Emergency Election Plan, But Edwards' Veto Pen Looms

Paul Braun
Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin pauses to take in a lawmaker's question during a meeting of House and Governmental Affairs Committee, Aug. 19, 2020.

The political tug-of-war over how Louisiana should conduct this fall’s presidential election continued Wednesday as the state’s top elections official and legislators took up the issue during a marathon meeting of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The debate underscored the deep partisan divide between Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who is calling for expanded access to mail in ballots during the pandemic, and Republicans who argue that granting that access would compromise the integrity of this fall’s election.

The Republican-controlled committee eventually approved Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s emergency election plan, which would roll-back access to mail-in ballots offered during this summer’s elections to appease GOP legislative leaders.

But the committee's action likely amounts to little more than a symbolic gesture.

Gov. John Bel Edwards has vowed to reject the measure, which he called “woefully inadequate,” if it reaches his desk because it doesn’t specifically expand access to mail-in ballots to medically vulnerable people or those ordered to quarantine because of exposure to the coronavirus.

Ardoin said he will not amend the plan to win Edwards’ approval.

The inability to find common ground means any coronavirus-related accommodations for this fall’s elections would likely come from the courts. State law requires both the legislature and the governor to approve the plan before it can take effect.

“This process has boxed me in and put me between a rock and a hard place,” Ardoin said, adding that party politics have “created an untenable situation.”

As has been the case in the national debate over mail-in ballots and elections, the opposing factions in the Louisiana capitol are divided largely along party lines — Rep. Barry Ivey of Baton Rouge was the only Republican committee member to vote against the proposal.

But the division between Ardoin and Edwards is a recent development. In April, the two men collaborated on the first draft of the emergency plan for the July 11 presidential primary and the Aug. 15 municipal election that would have granted near-universal access to mail-in ballots.

That plan was later scaled back to meet the demands of a contingent of Republican state senators, but Edwards signed off. That plan allowed voters to request an absentee ballot if they had a medical condition that put them at higher risk if they contracted the coronavirus, were subject to a quarantine isolation order, if they were experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or if they were caring for someone who had certain COVID-19 risk factors.

Ardoin said extending those accommodations to a presidential election, in which 2.1 million Louisianans are expected to participate, would create an unmanageable logistical burden for state election officials.

Voting rights activists criticized those qualifications as too narrow and described the required submission of documentation as invasive or overly burdensome.

While the percentage of people who cast their ballots this summer surged to 19 percent — a new record — only two percent of those individuals listed a covid-related reason on their application for a mail in ballot.

As recently as last week, Edwards said he regarded this summer’s elections as successful and that he would be satisfied by an emergency plan that would duplicate those accommodations this fall, even as 43 other states and the District of Columbia have granted near-universal access to mail in ballots for this fall’s elections.

The Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and the NAACP’s Legal Defense and Education Fund have already sued the state for failing to adopt an emergency elections plan. That suit is pending the U.S. Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

Paul Braun was WRKF's Capitol Access reporter, from 2019 through 2023.