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Mail-In Ballots, Distancing And COVID-19 Excuses: What You Need To Know To Vote In Louisiana In 2020

Jessica Rosgaard

The coronavirus has injected uncertainty into so many aspects of our daily lives. Voting is no exception.

After months of uncertainty over how the state would conduct this fall's presidential election amid the coronavirus pandemic, Louisiana voters finally got some answers thanks to a recent federal court ruling.

On Sept. 16, U.S. District Court Judge Shelly Dick ruled that Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin has to expand access to mail-in ballots and extend early voting in the Nov. 3 and Dec. 5 elections — basically a repeat of the accommodations that were in place during this summer’s presidential primary and municipal elections. Notably, more people than usual will be eligible to vote by mail.

Ardoin told The Advocate that he will not appeal Dick’s ruling, so the changes she mandated will be in place when voters head to the polls — or their mailboxes — this fall.

Here’s everything you need to know about voting in 2020.

Leer en español.

First things first, how can I register to vote and what are the deadlines?

The easiest way to register is through Louisiana’s online voter portal. Voters have until Oct. 13 to register online, though you may not want to cut it too close. The website has been shut down for “scheduled maintenance” at inconvenient times in the past, including National Voter Registration Day. Ardoin called that an “unfortunate error.”

The deadline to register in-person or by mail is Oct. 5.

When and where can I vote early and in-person?

Early in-person voting will be held from Oct. 16 through Oct. 27, excluding Sundays. Early voting sites will be open from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Early voting is typically conducted in the close confines of the local registrar of voters offices, but this year, election officials in many parishes are conducting early voting at larger sites to ensure proper social distancing. In Orleans Parish, the Smoothie King Center will host early voting as part of a larger push made by the NBA to encourage voter participation while ensuring safe social distancing.

A full list of early voting sites can be found here.

Can everyone get an absentee or “mail-in” ballot?

No. No-excuse mail-in ballots will be available in 45 states this fall, but Louisiana is not one of them.

Instead, voters who don’t ordinarily qualify for an absentee ballot can request one for a handful of COVID-19-related reasons.

And what are the COVID-19-related reasons you can use to get an absentee ballot?

The big reason is having a medical condition that puts you at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. The underlying condition has to be one that has been identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). That list is extensive and changes from time to time, but some of the conditions are hypertension, diabetes, obesity, asthma and pregnancy. You can check the latest CDC guidance here.

You can also qualify for an absentee ballot if you care for an individual who has been told to quarantine or self-isolate because of those underlying medical conditions or advanced age.

People who are quarantining because they tested positive for COVID-19, are awaiting COVID-19 test results, are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, or were exposed to someone who has COVID-19 can also qualify for a mail-in ballot.

Here’s a copy of the form that details those excuses. You can also find that information through the Geaux Vote Voter Portal.

You don’t have to submit documentation of those conditions, but you and a witness need to sign the form certifying that you’re telling the truth. And as the Secretary of State notes — in bold font — making a false statement is a felony.

Are we likely to see a surge in mail-in ballots this fall?

Yes, but not necessarily from people qualifying for those ballots using the COVID-19-related reasons listed above.

Nearly 20 percent of the people who participated in this summer’s presidential primary cast their ballots by mail, but only 2 percent of those voters got that ballot through the COVID-19 emergency absentee ballot application process.

So, the massive increase in absentee ballot requests will most likely come from people who already qualify, i.e. voters who will be out of town on Election Day, are in the military, have disabilities, are hospitalized, or are in jail awaiting trial (though it can be a challenge to get a ballot behind bars even at regular times).

The largest share of absentee ballots is expected to come from people over the age of 65. Since 2017, they have had the option to have a ballot automatically mailed to them for each election.

Record numbers of seniors are availing themselves of that option this year, and election officials are already feeling the increased demand.

By mid-September, East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Steve Raborn told The Advocate that his office has already received three times as many requests for absentee ballots than in 2016.

Earlier this month, Louisiana Commissioner of Elections Sherri Hadskey testified in a federal court hearing that processing the expected record number of mail-in ballots could delay election results by two to six days.

Why does it take so long?

Processing a mail-in ballot takes a lot more time than tabulating those cast at a polling place.

Parish election commissioners have to ensure that the ballot has been properly signed by both the voter and a witness. Ballot scanners speed up the process, but they are not infallible. If the voter’s signature does not match the one on file, commissioners have to inspect the ballot by hand.

Pretty much every voter weighs in on the presidential race, but many don’t have an opinion on lower-profile races or proposed constitutional amendments down the ballot. If they leave any one of those races blank, the ballot is flagged as incomplete and must be counted by hand.

To further complicate matters, state law only allows election officials to begin counting those ballots the day before the official election day.

The Secretary of State put out this video explaining how to fill out an absentee ballot to ensure that it is properly counted.

What are the important deadlines if I want to vote by mail?

You can request an absentee ballot in Louisiana at any time, but the state didn’t start sending those ballots out until Sept. 19. The last day to request an absentee ballot is Oct. 30.

However, the top lawyer for the U.S. Postal Service suggests that you request an absentee ballot at least 15 days before election day, citing concerns that increased use of mail-in ballots could cause widespread delays. So, you should strongly consider requesting your ballot by Oct. 19.

The vast majority of mail-in ballots must be received by their registrar of voters by 4:30 p.m. the day before Election Day — a Nov. 2 postmark won’t cut it. The Secretary of State recommends mailing your ballot back at least seven days before the deadline.

Voters who are overseas, in the military, or hospitalized have a little more time. Their ballots must be received by 8 p.m. on Election Day.

How can I make sure my ballot gets turned in on time?

If you’re worried about your ballot getting lost in the mail, you have a couple of options. You can request to fax it to your registrar of voters (if you can find a fax machine). Or you or a family member can hand-deliver it to the registrar. Family members will have to sign a form certifying their relationship to the voter when they drop off the ballot.

You can track the status of your absentee ballot through the online voter portal.

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