Federal judge sets Sept. 8 hearing regarding Louisiana’s election plans

Plaintiffs say Louisiana is forcing them to risk death to vote

By: - August 26, 2020 5:20 pm
Election Plan Kyle Ardoin

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, shown here on Aug. 20, 2020, was forced by his fellow Louisiana Republicans to end the open bidding process for the state’s voting machines. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

Louisiana residents who have accused Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin of disregarding their safety by not creating an emergency election plan that will allow them to safely vote will have their day in federal court Sept. 8. Ardoin, a Republican,  presented an emergency election plan last week that Republican-led committees in the state House and Senate approved, but Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, has indicated that he has no intentions of signing it. 

At a Wednesday afternoon status conference hearing made accessible to the press via the Zoom conferencing platform, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Baton Rouge, set the date for the plaintiffs to make their case. Attorneys representing Ardoin’s office complained that it might be too soon because members of the Louisiana Legislature have until Sept. 9 to get their mail-in votes for the plan, and — theoretically, at least — Edwards could decide to sign his approval.

Standing firm on the Sept. 8 date, Dick referred to the governor’s repeated statements that he will not sign Ardoin’s plan. On Sept. 8, she said, Election Day will be less than two months away. “The court is at a loss as to how we can further delay.”

The individual plaintiffs in the case are Jennifer Harding, a 42-year-old Baton Rouge mother who cares for her parents who are their 70s and a grandmother who is 93; Jasmine Pogue, a 33-year-old Baton Rouge mother who was recently diagnosed with asthma and has a history of upper respiratory infections and 56-year-old Omega Taylor, a Hammond woman who has diabetes, high blood pressure and other medical issues. The Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice are also plaintiffs.

The plaintiffs filed suit Aug. 3 and named Ardoin and Edwards as defendants in their official capacities as governor and secretary of state. A spokesperson for Gov. Edwards said the next day that Edwards thought the plaintiffs were correct to complain. “It is highly likely that in November we will be in the same situation we are in now, with elevated COVID-19 cases across the Louisiana, which would necessitate taking extra measures to protect the health and safety of our voters and poll workers, and the voting rights of all,” Christina Stephens, the governor’s deputy chief of staff for communications and special projects wrote in an email. “A request from the Secretary of State would be the first step in that process, and something that the Governor would support.”

Ardoin did eventually propose an emergency election plan. That plan accommodates fewer people than the plan that was in place for the July and August elections.  For those summer elections,  Louisiana residents could obtain absentee ballots if they were considered high risk for suffering or dying from COVID-19 or if they were caretakers for somebody else considered high risk.  They could also get an absentee ballot if they had symptoms of the viral infection, were under an isolation order or choosing to  quarantine.

Under Ardoin’s proposal for the November and December elections, Louisianians who don’t already qualify to vote absentee — such as those who are disabled or over age 65 — can’t qualify for an absentee ballot unless they have written proof from a doctor that they have COVID-19.

Edwards said that proposal doesn’t do nearly enough to address the ongoing pandemic and voters’ desire to stay safe and that he wouldn’t sign it. “Either we’ll have no emergency plan, or the plan will come from the court,” he said.

Dick has set aside two days for the hearings.  The plaintiffs will have six hours Sept. 8 to make their case and the defendants will have six hours Sept. 9 to respond.

Listen to the Illuminator’s most recent podcast about the state’s election plan here.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later NOLA.com) as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.

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