This week a federal judge issued a ruling that would require Louisiana to expand access to mail-in ballots during this fall’s presidential election. The ruling came from a lawsuit that pit voting rights advocates and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards against Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin.
News Director Patrick Madden spoke with Capitol Access reporter Paul Braun about the ruling and what it means for this fall’s election.
Q: Paul, give us a quick review of how we got here.
Paul Braun: Yeah. So without getting too deep into the weeds, Louisiana's emergency, uh, elections plans have to be approved by the legislature and the governor that's state law. So both signed off on a plan for this summer's presidential primary and municipal elections that modestly expanded absentee voting.
People say the mark of a good compromise is that nobody leaves the table happy, and that was definitely the case with this summer's election plan.
But when it came time to draft the plan for this fall's elections, instead of returning to that compromise Ardon drafted a new plan that catered exclusively to the Republican-controlled legislature. They ardently oppose expanding mail-in voting. So this proposal would have only extended access to mail-in ballots to people who can prove they tested positive for COVID-19. That was a nonstarter for Gov. Edwards. He refused to sign off and this issue went to the court and it was left up to a federal judge to decide. U.S. District Court, Judge Shelly Dick of the Middle District of Louisiana issued a ruling this week that said the state has to go back to that plan that they had this summer.
Q: You described this as a modest expansion of mail in voting. Exactly who can get a mail-in ballot because of Judge Dick’s ruling who couldn’t get one before?
Yeah, I think just to start, it's important to note what this ruling doesn't do all around the country. There's been a lot of talk about no excuse mail and voting. That will not be the case in Louisiana because of this ruling.
So what Dick's ruling does do is it puts back in place the vote by mail accommodations available this summer. So most notably, people who have medical conditions that put them at greater risk if they were to catch COVID and the people who care for them -- they can get absentee ballots. Also anyone who is quarantined because they have COVID because they might've been exposed to COVID or because they're experiencing COVID symptoms -- they can also get mail-in ballots.
Q: So are we going to see a surge in mail-in ballots this fall?
Braun: Yes, but not necessarily because of these COVID-19 reasons that we added here. In this summer's primary, 20 percent of ballots were cast by mail, but only 2 percent of those cited COVID-19 reasons. Most of the other ones came in for the normal vote by mail excuses. Under normal circumstances, the biggest chunk of absentee ballots comes from people over the age of 65.
Anyone older than 65 can have an absentee ballot automatically mailed to them if they request it. And so many more seniors are exercising that option in light of COVID this year, last week during that federal court hearing Sherri Hadskey, the state's elections commissioner, said that even without the expanded eligibility that came from this ruling, the sheer volume of requests for mail-in ballots requested under pre-existing requirements is likely to delay elections results between two and six days.
Q: And of course, we're not that far away from election day. So, Paul, what is next in this mail-in balloting saga?
Braun: Ardoin and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry could appeal this ruling. If they do so, the case would move up the next rung of the judicial ladder to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. Ardoin was talking about it to a legislative committee just this morning and was noncommittal. So Patrick, we'll have to keep an eye on it. And we'll let you know.