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Spring Election Plan: COVID-19 Ballot Applications, No Expansion For Early In-Person Voting

Paul Braun
Louisiana Secertary of State Kyle Ardoin. March 13, 2020.

State lawmakers have approved an emergency plan for Louisiana elections taking place in February and later this spring.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s plan is nearly identical to the court-ordered coronavirus accommodations in place during the Dec. 5 runoff election.

The House and Senate Governmental Affairs Committees approved the plan without objection and without the bitter partisan debate that derailed the approval process last year. The full legislature and Gov. John Bel Edwards still need to sign off before the plan can take effect.

Edwards has indicated that he will approve the emergency election plan when it reaches his desk.

The emergency rules would apply to the Feb. 6 special election to fill a vacant state House seat in Lake Charles, the March 20 and April 24 municipal elections, and in the yet-to-be-scheduled special elections in the 2nd and 5th congressional districts. Administration officials have said Edwards is planning to schedule the special elections for March 20 with a potential runoff on April 24, but cannot make that official until Richmond formally steps down. 

Rep. Cedric Richmond is leaving the 2nd district for a position as a senior adviser in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration. Congressman-elect Luke Letlow died of COVID-19 last month, days before he could be sworn in to represent the 5th district.

Once approved, the plan will allow people who wouldn’t ordinarily qualify for mail ballots to apply for them for a handful of COVID-19-specific reasons. Among those who would be eligible are individuals with medical conditions that put them at higher risk of death from COVID-19, those whose doctors told them to self-isolate or quarantine, and those who have tested positive for COVID-19 or are showing COVID-like symptoms.

The mail-in voting accommodations are identical to those that were in place for last year’s summer and fall elections.

The plan does not include an expansion of early in-person voting — one of the most popular voting options during this fall’s presidential election.

Ardoin reasoned that lower expected voter turnout this spring would keep the crowds at Louisiana polling places down at safe levels, even without adding days of early in-person voting.

After previously resisting any expansion of mail-in voting, Republicans on the committee quickly assented to Ardoin’s proposed COVID-19 ballot application.

“With all the teeth gnashing we did over the COVID ballot, an extraordinarily small number of people took advantage of that ballot,“ said. Sen. Sharon Hewitt, Slidell Republican and chairwoman of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Ardoin noted that out of the 2.1 million Louisiana voters who participated in November’s presidential election, fewer than 5,500 people availed themselves of the COVID-19 ballot application.

But a much larger portion of the electorate cast their ballots through the nontraditional means allowed under existing state law. Just shy of 818,000 people voted during the early in-person voting period — nearly doubling the previous record of 468,000. More than 168,000 people voted by mail, shattering the previous record by more than 100,000 votes. The largest subsection of those voters were individuals over the age of 65, who have had the option to automatically receive mail-in ballots since 2017.

Tuesday’s smooth committee hearing and Edwards’ pledge of support pave the way for the smoothest approval of an emergency election plan since the start of the pandemic.

Ardoin, a Republican, collaborated with the Democratic Edwards when drafting his first emergency election plan for the 2019 spring and summer elections. But Republican state senators rejected that plan, specifically objecting to language that would have allowed for near universal access to mail-in ballots.

After settling on a modest expansion of mail-in voting for last summer’s presidential primary and municipal general elections, Republican state lawmakers pushed Ardoin to remove those accommodations from his emergency elections plan for the Nov. 3 Presidential Election and Dec. 5 runoff election. They argued that expanding access to mail-in ballots would lead to widespread voter fraud — parroting a frequent talking point of President Donald Trump.

Edwards said failing to expand access to mail-in ballots would have forced vulnerable voters to choose between exercising their right to vote and protecting their health. He refused to sign off on the scaled-back election plan.

A federal judge, siding with Edwards, intervened and ordered the state to lengthen early voting to 10 days and offer the same COVID-19 ballot application.

Paul Braun is WRKF's Capitol Access reporter.