Republican ‘hyper partisan’ attempt to curtail governor’s power could decrease access to the polls

When state Sen. Sharon Hewitt was taking questions from her Senate colleagues Oct. 1 about a bill she’d drafted to weaken the governor’s role in establishing an emergency election plan, Sen. Regina Barrow asked Hewitt point blank, “Is this a method to try to suppress the vote?”  

Though Hewitt, a Slidell Republican, had previously expressed an alarming disregard for Louisianians who said they needed extra accommodations to vote during this pandemic and had attempted to push through an election plan that illustrated that disregard, she told Barrow, a Baton Rouge Democrat, “Absolutely not. This is basically just setting up a process by which to develop an emergency election plan.”

Hewitt’s answer implies that a process by which to develop an emergency election plan could not be used to suppress the vote, but Barrow,aware that the governor’s involvement had helped maximize the number of people who can vote safely and vote early starting today, had every reason to be skeptical.

At a time when Louisiana was the state that had registered the most cases of COVID-19 per capita and when its active caseload was still exceedingly high, Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin drafted a plan that ignored the needs of the state’s more medically vulnerable residents. And he drafted that plan, Ardoin didn’t hesitate to say, to please Republicans, specifically Hewitt, who chairs the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee and the Senate Republican delegation.

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Had Hewitt succeeded in having that plan enacted, it would most certainly have reduced the number of people voting November 3 and December 5, which, to Barrow’s point, would have counted as suppression. If not for Gov. John Bel Edwards’ opposition, that’s the plan Louisiana would have had. So now Hewitt is championing a process that takes away the governor’s power to stop an emergency election plan and reduces his influence to almost nothing.

For all Hewitt’s talk of efficiency and streamlining the way emergency election plans are crafted, the truth is this bill is intended as payback for the governor — as is the entire special session.

A law that says that the secretary of state, the Louisiana Legislature and the governor must agree on an emergency election plan would be replaced by a law that says that the legislature must approve a plan approved by a 10-person Emergency Election Commission. The secretary of state would both submit the plan to that commission and serve as the commission’s chair.

In addition to the secretary of state, the commission would include the chair of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, the chair of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, the governor, the speaker of the House, the president of the Senate, the chair of the House Republican delegation, the chair of the Senate Republican delegation, the chair of the House Democratic delegation and the chair of the Senate Democratic delegation.

Seven of those 10 positions are now held by Republicans, and Hewitt herself holds two of them. If everything else stays the same and the state’s next governor is Republican, then that party will control 8 of the 10 seats on an emergency election commission.

At a Wednesday meeting of the House and Governmental Affairs Committee, Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Baton Rouge, asked Hewitt, “Do you believe that a hyper partisan level of control could possibly influence and steer the decision-making process on policy in elections in a way that may jeopardize the actual election integrity?”

“I’m not sure what you’re driving at,” Hewitt said, “but we’re all partisans in this building.”  Everything that is done in Baton Rouge, she said, is done by partisans.

While Hewitt’s response that “we’re all partisans in this building” doesn’t exactly contradict her answer to Barrow that she’s not trying to suppress the vote, her admission gets to what Barrow was driving at.

Without partisanship, specifically partisanship in the creation of election rules, there is no voter suppression. And voter suppression, which is as widespread in the South as COVID-19, has been pushed by Republican legislatures, Republican secretaries of state and Republican governors. And sometimes given a blessing by conservative judges and courts.

The plan that Hewitt championed for the November 3 and December 5 elections was a blatant — but thankfully failed — attempt to suppress the vote. Not, in this case, by creating a law that makes it more difficult to vote but by not addressing a real and pervasive hardship that could have kept people from the polls.

Black Louisianians have been dying disproportionately of COVID-19. Black Louisianians have a disproportionate share of the health conditions that make a COVID-19 diagnosis scarier and the disease more difficult to treat. A plan that recognizes that there’s an ongoing and deadly pandemic and makes accommodations for those at an elevated risk to vote safely benefits everybody and doesn’t hurt a soul. And U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick ordered Louisiana to adopt such a plan for the current election and the next one.

Conversely, a plan based on the idea that the pandemic is nothing to worry about had the potential to hurt everybody, but it would have hurt Black people more. And, in a state where 77 percent of Black voters are Democrats and only 2 percent are Republicans, it would have hurt Democrats. This is a danger of hyper partisan involvement in election plans. The racial implications are huge.

The House committee didn’t vote on Hewitt’s bill Wednesday, choosing instead to defer it to next week to give Hewitt time to address some technicalities. But it’s doubtful that any of the edits will change the bill into anything other than an impatient power grab.

Any way you look at it, Republicans are going to have a significant amount of power to set election rules in Louisiana. Assuming Louisiana does not miraculously choose a Democrat for governor three consecutive times, the next governor will be a Republican, and it’s likely that Republicans will hold the secretary of state’s office and the Louisiana Legislature. And, barring the involvement of the courts, they’ll be able to set whatever emergency election rules they please.

But this has not been a special session about the future. This session, which Republicans deemed necessary, has been only about the present. They’ve decided that the current governor, a Democrat, must have his power curtailed — in multiple situations, including when he’s trying to use it to maximize the number of days, the number of ways and the number of people who can vote.

Hewitt says “We’re all partisans,” but that’s not how it has to be. When it comes to the ballot, when it comes to protecting and encouraging the franchise, we should be something other than a Republican or a Democrat. We should all be champions of access and opponents of every iteration of suppression.