Should Louisiana have a special election plan due to coronavirus?

Federal judge to rule ‘as quickly as humanly possible’

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).

A two-day hearing to decide if the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic warrants an emergency election plan in Louisiana concluded Wednesday after U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick heard testimony from expert witnesses. Dick told the parties involved that she would issue her ruling “as quickly as humanly possible.”

The case of Harding v. Edwards was brought by the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice against Gov. John Bel Edwards and Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, though Edwards, a Democrat, supported the plaintiff’s side and has been highly critical of the plan created by Ardoin, a Republican.

The lead plaintiff is Jennifer Harding, a 42-year-old Baton Rouge mother who cares for her parents who are in their 70s and a grandmother who is 93. She seeks a way to vote that doesn’t risk her getting infected with COVID-19 and endangering her family. Jasmine Pogue, a 33-year-old Baton Rouge mother who was recently diagnosed with asthma and has a history of upper respiratory infections is the other individual plaintiff.

Louisiana’s current plan makes no COVID-19 provisions for the November and December elections because Ardoin’s proposal wanted to require voters with COVID-19 to present a sworn statement from a doctor in order to receive a mail-in ballot. The governor refused to sign off on that. The proposal would have done nothing for voters like the plaintiffs, Harding and Pogue, who are either at higher risk for complications if they contract COVID-19 or are afraid their loved ones won’t survive if they pass on COVID-19 to them.

The state’s emergency plan for the July and August elections made allowances for people at higher risk for suffering from COVID-19. It also expanded early voting from seven to 13 days and allowed higher-risk voters to request an absentee mail-in ballot.

Ardoin said he removed the allowances for the next two elections because it was the only way his proposal could pass the Louisiana Legislature, which is controlled by Republicans. Although it passed the legislature, the governor has refused to sign off on it because of the lack of COVID-19 permissions.

Louisiana lawmakers were required to mail in their votes on Ardoin’s proposal.  Members of the state House voted 62-32 to approve it. Ten House members did not vote and Rep. Richard Nelson, a Republican, returned a ballot that was invalid because he voted neither yes nor no. The state Senate supported Ardoin’s plan 27-11 with Sen. Mark Abraham, a Republican from Lake Charles, not returning a ballot.

But without Edwards’ approval, the votes in the state House and Senate have no effect.

Plaintiffs in the case argued that the plan’s requirement of a doctor’s note discriminates against lower-income residents by essentially forcing them to pay for a doctor’s visit in order to vote. They also argued that caretakers of the elderly or people at high risk of COVID-19 should be allowed to vote by mail.

The defense argued that expanding the voting allowances would be too burdensome on election administrators.

Commissioner of Elections Sharon Hadskey, an aide for Ardoin, testified that she fears  additional mail-in ballots and other changes to the plan could prevent results from being tallied on Nov. 3 and may even interrupt election preparations for the Dec. 5 runoff. She also said she was concerned about voters and polling locations displaced by Hurricane Laura.

Hadskey did, however, acknowledge that Ardoin did not consult state health officials before creating his new election plan and acknowledged that voting in person does present health risks associated with the coronavirus.

Brandon Abadie, elections administrator for the East Baton Rouge Parish Clerk of Court, testified that it was impossible for some of his election commissioners to maintain proper social distancing at all times at the polls during the summer primaries. He also said that voters were not offered face coverings or PPE (personal protective equipment) at the polls.

Attorney General Jeff Landry, arguing for the state, pointed out that absentee balloting is not a right and that the state is worried about the risks of voter fraud that could be created under a more permissive election plan. Landry said the proposed plan allowed COVID-19 patients to request a mail-in ballot under the disability provision, which requires a doctor’s sworn statement.

However, Dr. Philip Bari, a New York physician called by the defense, acknowledged that he would not consider a person in quarantine to be disabled. State health officials instruct anyone who has been in contact with an infected person to quarantine and remain isolated for a period of 14 days.

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Wesley Muller
Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the following 22 years since then, he has worked as a journalist for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans, the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. Much of his work has involved reporting on First Amendment issues and watchdog coverage of municipal and state government. He has received several honors and recognitions, including McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association, among others. Muller is a New Orleans native, a Jesuit High School alumnus, a University of New Orleans alumnus, a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper, and an adjunct English teacher at Baton Rouge Community College. He lives in Ponchatoula, Louisiana, with his teenage son and his wife, who is also a journalist.