Reworked Louisiana elections plan crosses legislative hurdle
BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — An emergency plan to increase early and mail-in voting options for Louisiana’s summer elections because of the coronavirus won approval Wednesday from key state House and Senate oversight panels, but only after the mail-in balloting expansion was scaled back from a prior proposal.
Republican lawmakers who raised concerns about voter fraud and stalled the first plan submitted by GOP Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin lifted their objections once Ardoin more strictly limited the list of who’s eligible for mail-in ballots.
The previous proposal would have allowed anyone who had a “concern of exposure” to the COVID-19 caused by the virus to request an absentee-by-mail ballot. That language was stripped so the mail-in ballots will be available to a more specific list of people with certain medical circumstances.
Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Slidell Republican who chairs the Senate elections oversight committee, said the revised proposal “balances the right to vote while maintaining the integrity of our election processes.”
The reworked emergency elections plan won unanimous approval Wednesday from the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee. A House committee backed the proposal shortly thereafter in an 11-5 vote. Those votes send the plan to the full House and Senate for consideration by emailed ballot.
Ardoin said he believes the plan ensures voter access amid the pandemic and could withstand legal challenges.
If approved by both chambers as expected, Ardoin will use the plan to manage the July 11 presidential primary and an August 15 municipal election. He’ll be able to change precinct locations, relocate polling places, expand in-person early voting from seven days to 13 days and widen the availability of mail-in absentee ballots to people impacted by the virus.
After running into widespread opposition for his first proposal from fellow Republicans, the secretary of state worked out the latest draft with GOP leaders, including Attorney General Jeff Landry, Senate President Page Cortez and House Speaker Clay Schexnayder.
Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who supported the first proposal, backed the rewritten version, calling it a “reasonable plan under the circumstances.”
Despite the bipartisan backing, the revisions still ran into criticism.
Some Democrats said the mail-in voting options were too limited and could disenfranchise voters who are fearful of contracting the virus but don’t meet the requirements for an absentee ballot. Some Republicans objected to the mail-in balloting expansion and suggested a doctor’s note should be required for people allowed to vote by mail because of COVID-19.
Growing fears about the virus outbreak have twice prompted postponement of a Louisiana presidential primary that had been set for April 4 and a municipal election originally planned for May 9.
Louisiana’s existing absentee balloting procedure is limited to people who are 65 years old or older, members of the military, overseas voters, people who are hospitalized and people who won’t be in their parish for the election.
Ardoin originally proposed a broad, temporary expansion of mail-in balloting for the summer elections because of the virus. But that ran into criticism from Republican senators who suggested it would increase the risk for fraudulent balloting — even as voting experts say the overall risk of fraud, either by mail-in voting or in-person voting, is extremely low across the country.
Ardoin’s new plan lets people seek an absentee-by-mail ballot for the July and August elections if they attest on an application that they are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of certain medical conditions; are subject to a quarantine or isolation order; are advised by a health care provider to self-quarantine; are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or are caring for someone who is quarantined or isolated because of the disease.
Lying on a mail-in ballot application is a felony. Applicants must sign a statement acknowledging they could be jailed for up to 2 years and fined up to $2,000 if they lie on the form and are found guilty of making false statements. A witness will be required to sign the mail-in ballot request form.