Louisiana governor vetoes changes to the emergency election plan process

The rejected bill was sponsored by House Republican Caucus Chairwoman Sharon Hewitt

Gov. John Bel Edwards
Gov. John Bel Edwards (Photo by Wesley Muller)

Gov. John Bel Edwards vetoed Wednesday legislation that would have changed the process for implementing an emergency election plan like the one used over the summer to make it easier to vote during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Edwards said he was uncomfortable with provisions of the bill that would have allowed the Legislature to approve an emergency election plan outside of a public meeting and remotely by electronic means — such as by email or a text message.

“This method of transmittal is simply not acceptable,” he wrote in a letter explaining his veto to the legislative leadership. 

The vetoed legislation was sponsored by Senate Republican Caucus Chairwoman Sharon Hewitt of Slidell. Hewitt is also the head of the Committee on Senate & Governmental Affairs, which oversees election policy. 

Recently, the state has used emergency election plans to ease voting in the aftermath of hurricanes and during the COVID-19 health crisis. They allow the state to change polling locations, create more avenues for absentee voting, provide more flexibility to election officers and expand early in-person voting without making permanent changes to election law. 

The process for approving emergency election plans is widely considered cumbersome and despite the veto, even the governor said he thinks it could be improved. It’s difficult for legislators to adjust emergency election strategies brought forward by the secretary of state. Lawmakers can only accept or reject a proposed plan. They can’t make adjustments to it. 

Hewitt’s bill aimed, in part, to rewrite the portion of the law — allowing lawmakers to tweak the election plans brought forward by the secretary of state. The legislation also inserted a provision that would have allowed lawmakers to override a governor’s veto of an emergency election plan if both chambers approved it by a two-thirds majority. 

Some of the controversy surrounding the November election likely motivated Hewitt jand other Republicans to introduce the legislation. Edwards, a Democrat, had vetoed an emergency elections plan brought forward by Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and approved by the Republican-controlled Legislature earlier this year.

The rejected plan — intended for the November and December elections — did not provide enough accommodations for people affected or threatened by COVID-19, Edwards said. A federal judge ended up siding with Edwards, forcing the state to offer more voting options because of the pandemic. These included expanding absentee voting for people forced to quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19. 

The governor said he doesn’t object to giving the Legislature an option to override his veto of an emergency election plan, especially since they already are able to override vetoes of legislation with the two-thirds majority of each chamber. But he doesn’t think that lawmakers should be able to approve election plans remotely through their cell phones. 

“Putting aside that many supporters of this bill assailed the security of mail-in voting for the public while at the same time providing for mail-in voting ballots for themselves, this process should not be taken a step further by allowing balloting by text messaging and eliminating the paper trail of a mail-in ballot,” he wrote. 

In general, Edwards appears to be wary of remote voting and meeting by lawmakers. 

He also vetoed another piece of legislation sponsored by Hewitt which would have allowed lawmakers to conduct more of their public business remotely during a health emergency or disaster. Edwards said the bill had to be vetoed, in part because a companion piece of legislation needed for it to work wasn’t passed. But the governor also seemed concerned about the concept as a whole.

“This bill would potentially result in even less public participation in legislative proceedings,” Edwards wrote in his veto letter. “While there certainly is a need to have the Legislature meet to provide continuity of government during an emergency, such should only be considered after careful analysis and with the proper constitutional framework.” 

Lawmakers do have the option of calling themselves back into session to override Edwards’ vetoes, but that has never happened in the modern history of Louisiana. These bills also didn’t receive enough votes — two-thirds of each chamber — to prevail over a veto, making it even more unlikely that lawmakers will pursue the overrides.