Judge: Louisiana must return to pandemic mail-in voting
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Louisiana must reinstate coronavirus pandemic voting plans used for summer elections rather than using a more restrictive plan proposed by the Louisiana secretary of state and approved by the Legislature for elections in November and December, a federal judge has ruled.
“The state’s failure to provide accommodation for pandemic-affected voters is likely unconstitutional because it imposes an undue burden on Plaintiffs’ right to vote,” U.S. District Chief Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge wrote in her opinion Wednesday.
The plan used in July and August, which had five pandemic-related reasons for getting mail-in ballots, worked just fine, she wrote. It “was not broken; the bumbling attempts to fix what was not broken have brought us to today,” she said.
“Today’s ruling is a huge victory not only for the health and safety of the people of Louisiana, but also for their voting rights and our democracy,” Gov. John Bel Edwards said in an emailed statement. Edwards, a Democrat, had rejected the more restrictive plan proposed by Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and passed by the Republican-dominated Legislature.
“No one should have to risk their health or their life to vote, and I am relieved that the court agrees,” Edwards continued. “Simply put: COVID-19 remains a serious problem in Louisiana and voting should not be a super spreader event.”
Dick said the state must allow mail-in voting for people with conditions that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed as making people more vulnerable to COVID-19, their caretakers, and three other groups. She also ordered expansion of early voting from seven days to 10 for the Nov. 3 presidential election but not for a Dec. 5 election.
The opinion was “really measured,” boiling down to “just go back and do what you did in July and August,” Edwards said during his monthly call-in radio show.
Ardoin issued a two-sentence statement by email: “We have received and are currently reviewing Judge Dick’s ruling. A decision as to how to proceed will be made after careful consideration of the facts is weighed with the fact that absentee voting currently (is) underway for some voters, and early voting mere weeks away.”
State plans to require poll workers to wear protective equipment and to clean voting machines after each use don’t go far enough, Dick wrote. She noted that voters won’t be required to mask up, “social distancing is aspirational but cannot be assured; and high anticipated voter turnout will produce long lines.”
She said elections officials didn’t provide “a scintilla of evidence” to back up claims that expanding mail-in voting would make fraud more likely. “Strikingly absent is even a hint of fraud in the July and August primaries, where expanded mail voting was available to voters with COVID-19 comorbidities, caretakers, and others,” she wrote.
State Commissioner of Elections Sherri Wharton Hadskey testified that she was already worried that workers wouldn’t be able to tabulate results on Nov. 3 because requests for mail-in ballots from voters at least 65 years old had surged from about 60,000 to nearly 165,000.
“Be that as it may, a potential expansion of mail voting to accommodate voters with comorbidities or caretakers has nothing whatsoever to do with the state’s failure to be prepared to tabulate mail votes,” Dick wrote. She noted that in July, only 2% of voters who used mail-in ballots were in one of the five COVID-19-related categories — and they made up less than 0.4% of total votes.
“Simple arithmetic indicates that a continuation of the COVID-19 excuses for mail voting would result in an additional 8,400 mail ballots,” she wrote. Dick said that disproves claims that allowing the same reasons for later elections “would wreak havoc on the integrity of the system.”
Plaintiffs Jennifer Harding, who cares for her 71- and 72-year-old parents and 93-year-old grandmother, and Jasmine Pogue, who has asthma and a history of upper respiratory infections, were told of the decision by email, said NAACP attorney Catherine Mesa.
“Essentially the court relied on medical evidence that we put forth regarding the risk posed by the pandemic,” she said.