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)
Two state legislative committees on Tuesday unanimously approved a proposed emergency election plan that would offer mail-in ballots and other coronavirus-related accommodations for voters to use in municipal races this spring, two special congressional elections and a special state House race in February.
Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin presented the plan to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee Tuesday morning and later that afternoon to the House Governmental Affairs Committee. The plan, which is nearly identical to the one used for the November presidential election, would give voters five COVID-19-related reasons to request an absentee mail-in ballot.
Ardoin’s proposal sailed easily through both committees with bipartisan support from legislators, including the same Republican members who vehemently opposed those same accommodations just a few months ago, claiming the voting by mail options would invite widespread voter fraud. That controversy ended when a federal judge ordered the state to adopt the accommodations.
The Republicans changed their stance after Ardoin’s office certified the presidential election results without a single reported instance of fraud.
Ardoin said that about 5,500 people out of the 2.1 million who voted used the pandemic-related excuses to cast an absentee mail ballot.
“There were a good number of races that were decided by 20 votes or less,” Ardoin said. “Had we had any indications that fraud was part of that in terms of the COVID applications, we would have investigated — we got none.”
Still, Ardoin’s reassurances did not stop all mentions of election conspiracies. As the discussion was winding down in the House committee, Rep. Valarie Hodges, R-Denham Springs, tried shifting the topic to the state’s contract with Dominion Voting Systems, a company that provides voting machines and has made recent headlines for being the target of baseless conspiracy theories pushed by former President Donald Trump and other Republicans who alleged — falsely — that the company is owned by a Venezuelan dictator and engaged in a deep-state plot to steal the election and prevent Trump from heroically defeating a global pedophile ring run by Hillary Clinton out of a neighborhood pizza parlor in Washington D.C., among other outlandish theories.
“When is the contract for Dominion up for renewal?” Hodges asked.
As soon as Ardoin heard the question, he leaned back in his chair, took a long deep breath, grinned and sat in silence with his chin resting in his hand until acting chairman Rep. John Stefanski, R-Crowley, interjected and stopped Hodges’ line of questioning.
“Representative, I don’t want to get too deep into that,” Stefanski said to Hodges. “You can ask your questions, (but) I just want to stay on topic of the election plan. As long as we don’t delve too deep into it, if the secretary wants to answer that question, it’s his prerogative.”
Ardoin said the contract is up for renewal at the end of January.
The emergency election plan would apply to a Feb. 6 special election for a state House seat in Lake Charles vacated by Stephen Dwight who was elected district attorney in Calcasieu Parish, municipal elections on March 20 and April 24, and two special congressional elections yet to be scheduled by Gov. John Bel Edwards. One of those is for the 5th Congressional District seat won by Luke Letlow, who died Dec. 29 from COVID-19. The other is the 2nd Congressional District seat vacated by Cedric Richmond who is resigning to take a position in President-elect Joe Biden’s administration.
As they did for last year’s races, the emergency election accommodations would allow people to vote by mail if they are at high-risk of severe complications from COVID-19 because of underlying medical conditions; are subject to a quarantine order; are advised by a health practitioner to self-quarantine; are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms and seeking diagnosis confirmation; or are caring for someone who is isolated due to COVID-19.
One key difference with the newly proposed plan is it does not increase the number of early voting days as last year’s plan did. However, this is not expected to impact voter access because the upcoming races are much smaller than last year’s with low turnouts expected, Ardoin said.
The Power Coalition for Equity and Justice successfully sued the state in the summer because the state was not planning to make any COVID-19 accommodations for its fall elections. Ashley Shelton, the executive director of the nonprofit, said Tuesday night that her organization appreciates Ardoin keeping the COVID-19 reasons to request and absentee ballot, “but (he) did not keep the extended early voting (which they also did not do in December) so while we support extended mail in voting, I think we would like to see extended in-person early voting opportunities so that more people can use that option, especially since almost 30% of people early voted in person in November due in large part to the extra days.”
The proposal advances to the Louisiana Legislature for a vote by mail, and if both chambers approve it, the governor can approve or reject it.
Editor Jarvis DeBerry contributed to this report.
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