A state legislative committee on Wednesday approved Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s proposed emergency election plan despite drawing criticism from the governor, many Louisiana residents and a Republican lawmaker for the voting barriers the plan creates amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
The House and Governmental Affairs Committee, comprised of mostly Republicans, passed the plan in a 8-6 vote with one party dissension from Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, who made lengthy impassioned speeches about the partisan and medically-dangerous aspects of the plan.
Committee Chairman Stephen Dwight, R-Lake Charles, said the committee received 122 emails opposing the plan prior to the public feedback deadline, plus 65 more after the deadline. They received only one email in support of it, Dwight said.
Ivey and several Democratic legislators spent the entire morning criticizing Ardoin, a Republican, for submitting an emergency election plan at the last minute, thereby making bipartisan revisions almost impossible.
For the summer presidential primary elections, Ardoin had previously created an emergency plan that passed the legislature with some bipartisan revisions, though it carried only a few accommodations for COVID-19 patients and others requiring absentee mail-in ballots.
“This go-around we get a plan at the very last minute where no revisions are reasonably possible,” Ivey said. “That’s disturbing.”
Lawmakers also pointed out that the plan makes it more difficult to vote amid the pandemic because the secretary of state would now require COVID-19 patients and others who are ill to present a sworn certificate from a physician in order to receive an absentee ballot — which is not a requirement under normal non-pandemic election conditions.
In a response to questioning from Ivey, Ardoin affirmed that under the proposed plan, an out-of-town resident can get an absentee mail-in ballot without providing any supporting documentation, while a COVID-19 patient must provide a sworn certificate from a physician to get the same ballot.
Ardoin defended his proposal, saying he merely wanted to create a plan that could pass the Republican-controlled legislature.
“I was a lobbyist for many years, and I know how to count votes,” Ardoin said. “I developed a plan that I knew would pass the legislature.”
Rep. Malinda White, D-Bogalusa, grilled Ardoin for “dancing to his own party” and creating excuses to deny people the right to vote.
“A hundred years ago, women weren’t able to vote, and they came up with all kinds of excuses,” White said. “Are we on the right side of history with this?
Hispanic and African Americans have contracted COVID-19 at a rate more than double the rate of whites, contributing to a belief that additional barriers to absentee voting would benefit white Republicans in the election.
“You keep hearing excuses of why we can’t give people the right to vote,” White added. “Anything to suppress a vote is the wrong side of history to me.”
Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, expressed support for the plan by citing an old debunked claim that millions of absentee ballots went “missing” in the 2016 election. However, this is a fundamental misrepresentation. What Hodges was actually referring to is a report from the Public Interest Legal Foundation that said the ballots were counted as “unknown” because they were simply not returned by the voter — the same as someone not showing up to vote. By the same logic, all of the 250 million votes not cast in-person on Election Day 2016 also went “missing.”
Rep. Ivey, the Republican who begged his colleagues not to support the plan, said: “This is a more complicated plan that accommodates fewer people…and actually puts people’s health in jeopardy…Can you do anything less in this plan?”
Louisiana’s top medical experts from the Office of Public Health expressed concern with residents who are particularly vulnerable to the coronavirus or under quarantine or awaiting test results. Dr. Tina Stefanski told the committee that it is recommended those people not go to polling locations in-person. However, Ardoin’s plan makes no accommodations for folks in those situations.
Requiring voters to obtain sworn signatures from doctors could have the unintentional effect of putting additional burdens on an already-strained medical community.
“We’re very reluctant to — right now in the middle of a pandemic — to increase pressure on the healthcare system,” OPH Dr. Stephen Russo said.
Under questioning from Rep. Sam Jenkins, Ardoin admitted that he did not consult with the Health Department in creating the election plan, saying health officials “never reached out to me.”
Louisiana is one of eight states where absentee ballots are not a choice for all residents. Most other states automatically send absentee ballots to residents or allow residents to request one without reason or approval.
Under grilling from Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, Ardoin said his office does not have the resources to handle absentee voting the way other states have. Duplessis fired back, pointing out that if Louisiana has a lack of election resources, it is Ardoin’s fault alone because Ardoin refused to accept election resources when they were offered by the federal government earlier this year.
Duplessis quoted from a letter Ardoin wrote in response to the federal offer: “Louisiana does not need the federal government telling us how to run elections.”
Throughout the day Ardoin stuck to his defense of wanting to create a plan that would pass muster.
“What muster? Political muster?” Ivey said. “Is it our opinion, or is it the law? There’s no way this passes muster.”
Gov. John Bel Edwards also criticized Ardoin’s election plan, vowing to not sign it unless significant changes are made.
Because the Republican-controlled legislature will likely approve the plan, the fate of election day on Nov. 3 will probably be left to a federal court as Ardoin’s proposal has already drawn lawsuits.