Voter who sued Louisiana for ballot access says voting should always be easy

Jennifer Harding turns in her and her parents' absentee ballots at the EBR registrar of voters office. About 4,000 Louisianans used the mail-in ballot option this election season. (Photo courtesy of Jennifer Harding)

When Jennifer Harding started caretaking for her mother, father and grandmother in March, she and her family started isolating from the rest of the world.

“Before even the stay-at-home order went into place, we took our son out of school,” Harding said.

Harding was worried about the safety of her mother, who has post-polio syndrome, her father, who has Parkinson’s Disease, and a grandmother who has been diagnosed with dementia. 

In August, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin proposed an election plan requiring COVID-19 patients and others who are ill to present a sworn certificate from a physician in order to receive an absentee ballot — which was not a requirement for the July and August elections. Gov. John Bel Edwards’ approval was necessary for any emergency election plan, and his rejection of Ardoin’s proposal meant Louisiana had no emergency election plan.

Harding, who works as a community organizer for Voice of the Experienced, an organization dedicated to expanding voting rights for the formerly incarcerated, said she knew there would be “people like me who have been taking on these extreme precautions but are still feeling they will still have to go vote in-person.” 

“How can we ensure we get expanded access for folks who don’t feel comfortable (voting in-person)?” Harding asked.

Harding was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against the state demanding that officials accommodate people who weren’t sick with COVID-19 but at a higher risk of severe complications or at risk of infecting others at high risk. After hearing from the plaintiffs and state officials in Harding v Edwards, U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge said the state’s failure to accommodate voters such as Harding amounted to an “undue burden” and for the November and December elections she ordered the state to add three extra days to the seven days Louisianians have typically gotten to vote early.  Dick also added five COVID-related excuses that people could use to vote by mail.

That meant Louisianans could apply for an absentee ballot for COVID-related reasons if they were at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 due to serious underlying medical conditions, had to quarantine or isolate, experience COVID-19 symptoms or cared for an individual who was at high risk of severe illness from COVID-19.

The ruling meant Harding could vote absentee and not have to worry about her parents or grandparents’ health. She hand-delivered her family’s ballots to the East Baton Rouge Parish Registrar of Voters Office.

“Democracy is a verb, we have to all have to actively be doing democracy,” Harding said. “You shouldn’t have to risk your life to cast your vote in the United States of America. It felt important enough (of a cause) for me to join a lawsuit.”

Though the courts ruled in Harding’s favor, she said she still doesn’t understand why absentee ballot applications can’t be simpler so voters have to jump through less hoops. She said the process currently in place limits people. 

“What we want to do is make sure people feel they have the option to vote safely in the way that they choose that’s best for them no matter what,” Harding said. “You have to wonder, ‘why make it so confusing?’”

The absentee ballot application also includes an affidavit on the bottom that threatens a $2,000 fine or imprisonment for up to two years if the voter provides any false information, which Harding said scared some voters off.

Overall 20,114 Louisiana voters requested an absentee ballot but opted to vote early in-person instead, according to the Secretary of State’s office. A total of 3,490 voters, or 0.16% of the 2.1 million voters who cast a ballot in the presidential race, actually used a mail-in ballot that had been requested for a COVID-related reason.

Harding attributes the small percentage of Louisiana voters using mail-in ballots to politically charged rhetoric and too narrow and confusing COVID-related conditions.

The court case ruling only applies to the November election and the runoff, Harding said. “This pandemic isn’t going away, there’s an election coming up in March and I would really like to see us have a safe option to vote as long as this pandemic is a threat.”

In October, Ardoin and Louisiana Attorney General Jeff Landry appealed Dick’s ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. “We are simply asking for a review of the conclusions of law,” Tyler Brey, a spokesperson for Ardoin’s office said then.  Ardoin has said that even if the appellate court overturns Dick’s ruling, Louisianians should expect December’s elections to follow the same rules as November’s.