Emergency election plan courtroom fight begins with plaintiffs winning a battle

Judge rules against state’s motion to dismiss plaintiffs

LA election plan
Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin testifies in front of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee regarding his proposed emergency election plan on Wednesday, Aug. 19, 2020. (Photo by Wes Muller/LA Illuminator).

Louisiana voters who say they will be disenfranchised by the state’s absence of a pandemic-related emergency election plan will begin making their case to U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick this morning.  But Dick, the chief judge of the federal court in Baton Rouge, issued a ruling yesterday that suggests she’s skeptical of the state’s argument that its current election plan is adequate.

Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry asked Dick to dismiss the plaintiffs lawsuit as she did when she ruled against them before the state’s summer elections.  But the judge declined to do so because, she ruled, the plaintiffs have a stronger case against the state now than they did before.

The Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and three Louisiana voters who have health conditions that make them more vulnerable to COVID-19 or care for people who are more vulnerable sued Ardoin and Gov. John Bel Edwards because, they say, there’s no plan in place for them to vote without risking infection.  Though he’s still a defendant, Edwards has essentially joined the plaintiffs in their criticism.  The governor’s approval is necessary for an emergency plan, but Edwards  rejected the plan that Ardoin did propose and said it doesn’t take into account the seriousness of the pandemic.

For the July and August elections Louisiana had a plan that expanded voting access by allowing mail-in ballots for people who were concerned about contracting the virus or passing it on to someone under their care.  But, currently, there is no expanded plan governing the upcoming elections.

Referring to lead plaintiff Jennifer Harding, a Baton Rouge woman who cares for her high-risk parents and a grandparent, Dick wrote, “Harding’s circumstances may be the same, but the legal landscape for the upcoming elections is vastly different and distinguishable. Now, there is no Emergency Election Plan, and no Pandemic-related mail-in voting provision available to Harding or other similarly situated voters with Pandemic-related concerns. Previously, this Court held that ‘Harding’s own belief that she would not qualify based on the Secretary of State’s criteria is apparently entirely speculative and not sufficiently concrete to give rise to an injury-in-fact’  Now, Harding’s inability to qualify for an absentee by mail ballot is an objective fact, not speculation. In this Court’s view, the state’s failure to provide any accommodation for Pandemic-affected voters is state action which operates to create an injury-in-fact” that gives Harding standing to sue.

Dick previously ruled against the Power Coalition and the NAACP when, before the summer elections, they argued that they were having to divert money away from their budgeted plans to remain true to their mission of keeping voters informed about how they could vote.  Ardoin and Landry wanted Dick to use the same reasoning to kick the organizations off the current lawsuit.  But Dick declined.

“In the prior case, the Court was skeptical of these plaintiffs’ organizational standing because (1) their missions were not frustrated by an expansion of voting rights and (2) any resource diversion was more likely attributable to the Virus, not the actions of Defendants. The circumstances now presented are markedly different. Now, the organizations are faced with a more restrictive voting regime and their need to divert of funds and change their operations is largely attributable to Defendants’ failure to implement an Emergency Election Plan for the fall elections, and the attendant voter confusion caused thereby. Accordingly, Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss the organizational plaintiffs for want of standing shall be DENIED.”

Dick is allowing the plaintiffs six hours to present their case today, Sept. 8 and the defendants will be granted an equal amount of time Wednesday.