By ordering a pandemic emergency election plan, federal judge does what Kyle Ardoin should have

Current rules place ‘undue burden’ on voters worried about COVID-19

September 17, 2020 7:00 am
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 Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin should have fought for Louisiana voters who demanded a way to cast their ballots in November and December without risking exposure to the novel coronavirus. Louisiana has been hit particularly hard by that virus and continues to lead the country in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases per capita. The elderly and those with health conditions including hypertension, diabetes, kidney disease, heart disease, cancer and asthma, have suffered disproportionately, but when people with those health conditions or caring for people with said conditions asked Ardoin to provide a safer way for them to vote, he said no.

Thus, the secretary of state, whose primary job is to conduct fair and honest elections in Louisiana, didn’t even try to come up with election rules that were fair and equitable. And he wouldn’t have had to do much: Just take the emergency election plan that the Louisiana Legislature, the governor and a federal court judge approved for the July and August elections and update it for November and December.

Instead, Ardoin — who said he was bending to the will of Republicans in the Legislature — rolled back protections and embraced a kind of social darwinism that has besieged the state’s party even more thoroughly than the new, deadly coronavirus has besieged the state. In fact, let’s not call them the GOP or the Republican Party anymore. Let’s call them what they’ve been during this killer pandemic: the Let Them Get Sick Party.

In a Wednesday ruling, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick said that voters shouldn’t have to risk getting sick to exercise their franchise. “The District Court for the Northern District of Georgia stated it well,” Dick wrote in that ruling: ‘‘Exposure to a deadly virus is a burden.’’

Over the objections of Ardoin, whose office had been sued for lack of a plan, and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry who voluntarily and unnecessarily involved his office in the suit, Dick, who was appointed to the federal bench by President Barack Obama in 2013, ordered the state to provide nearly the same accommodations for the November and December elections that it did in July and August. “Plaintiffs have shown that 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,” Dick wrote.

Dick’s ruling means that — as in July and August — Baton Rouge plaintiffs Jennifer Harding and Jasmine Pogue will have the option of voting in person. Harding is a 42-year-old Baton Rouge mother who cares for her parents who are in their 70s and a grandmother who is 93. Pogue is a 33-year-old Baton Rouge mother who was recently diagnosed with asthma and has a history of upper respiratory infections.

It was Ardoin’s responsibility to respond to those voters’ needs. As their secretary of state, he should have done everything in his power to make sure they could vote without the worry of illness or death. Instead, Ardoin took his cues from the likes of state Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the Republican who leads the state’s Senate & Governmental Affairs committee, and he proposed an emergency election plan that, for the most part, implied that there’s no real emergency. Gone were the protections for people concerned about getting sick. That proposal would only have made accommodations for people with a doctor’s note that they were currently suffering from COVID-19.

In an interview last month with Illuminator Podcast host Julie O’Donoghue, Hewitt acknowledged that some folks are at higher risk but followed that acknowledgement with an utter disregard for their health: “Folks that are at higher risk, you know, because of high blood pressure, or diabetes or obesity or some of those things, I think they are learning to understand the risk and I think they are learning to – again with all the social distancing and mask wearing and sanitizing and all that – I think they are learning how they can be in the public and be safe,” Hewitt said. “I think those folks are out shopping and visiting with family and doing some things and they probably are more comfortable with voting in person now than they were when we first talked about this in April and things were all so new and so scary.”

Could Ardoin have succeeded in getting a fair and accommodating election plan through the committee Hewitt chairs or through Republican legislators as a whole? Maybe not. But then again, he got it through them, and it netted him nothing but an embarrassing ruling from a federal judge who dismissed as nonsense his arguments against an emergency election plan.

I was a lobbyist for many years, and I know how to count votes,” Ardoin said last month. “I developed a plan that I knew would pass the Legislature.” But his allegiance ought not to have been to those lawmakers but to voters of all affiliations, including voters who have no party affiliation at all.

It’s bad enough that two state officials decided to work so hard against helping their own residents and constituents vote, but it’s particularly galling that in the state that’s arguably been hit the hardest by the disease those officials dredged up a medical expert witness who, as Dick puts it “is generally skeptical of the severity and the scope of the pandemic” and, on top of that, claims “the virus may have already substantially disappeared.”

The state confirmed 1,591 new COVID-19 on the two days Dick heard testimony in the case. Over those two days, 34 more COVID-19 patients died.

The total number of Louisianians dead of COVID-19 as of Wednesday afternoon was 5,126.  If Ardoin and Landry believe that such a death toll doesn’t warrant extraordinary measures for worried voters, maybe calling them the “Let Them Get Sick” Party is a notch too kind.


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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 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.