Louisiana has a voting access problem; expanding the number of voting days could help | Valencia Richardson & Candice Battiste

An Election Day line at Eleanor McMain Secondary School in New Orleans Nov. 3, 2020. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)

Louisiana has a voting access problem, particularly in areas where Black voters reside. But one bill before the Louisiana Legislature, HB 286 sponsored by Rep. Frederick Jones (D-Monroe), would address this problem by increasing access to in-person voting and extending from seven days to 11 eleven days the window for early voting in presidential elections. 

The 2020 Election proved HB 286 is necessary. The election exposed the limitations of Louisiana’s in-person voting infrastructure and forced voters to rely on polling places that were stretched past their limits. Concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic caused more Louisianians than ever to vote early.  There was a historically high turnout and historically long lines.  However, those  problems didn’t begin in  2020. Louisiana is one of several states that saw a drastic decrease in voting locations after the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act in 2013 by removing federal oversight in states with a history of voting discrimination against Black voters.

One report showed that Louisiana closed 126 polling places between 2012 to 2018. 

Research by Campaign Legal Center (CLC) shows that in Louisiana’s largest parishes, the number of polling places has decreased in every national election since 2012, while the population of Black voters has increased. For example, according to data from the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office, Jefferson Parish saw an 8.7 percent increase of Black registered voters between November 2012 (69,013 voters) and November 2020 (75,045 voters). The overall Black population in Jefferson Parish also increased from 116,168 residents in 2012 to 117,314 residents in 2020, a rate of about 1 percent, according to Census estimates. Despite the increase in Black residents and Black voters, we estimate that Jefferson Parish lost 26 Election Day polling places between 2012 and 2020, a decrease of 15 percent.

In-person early voting suffers from a similar problem. Caddo Parish, infamously, has only one early voting location, even though it is the state’s fourth largest parish. The three largest parishes, Jefferson, Orleans, and East Baton Rouge, have four, four, and five early voting locations, respectively. As a result, Caddo Parish’s single early voting site services more Black voters than both Orleans and Jefferson Parish combined, even though their respective populations are nearly twice as large. Even in Jefferson Parish, which has four early voting locations, there were wait times of more than  seven hours during the 2020 Election.

There was an unprecedented number of people who chose to vote early in 2020. Caddo Parish residents took advantage of the extended early voting days made available after the successful litigation by Power Coalition to offer additional early voting days as a result of the pandemic. Motivated by a presidential race, congressional races, and judicial races, a record number of voters flocked to vote early only to find that the parish’s one early-voting site was insufficient. “As someone who works in downtown Shreveport I thought early voting would be the easiest and fastest way for many of us to exercise my vote,” Robert A. Terry, a frequent voter and downtown employee said during early voting in 2020. “Instead, when I spoke with friends, many were waiting almost two hours — even though they lived or worked downtown less than a five-minute walk away. I remember seeing the line completely wrapped around the building multiple days.” 

Christian O’Neill heard  family members and friends in adjacent Bossier Parish describe their early voting experience as “fairly quick.” O’Neill said then, “Bossier has almost half the population but two early voting locations. When will Caddo make the same opportunities available to residents here?”

 The problem is nearly all Louisianians must vote in-person either early or on Election Day because, absent COVID-19 expansions, they cannot claim one of a limited number of “excuses” that make Louisianans qualified to cast absentee ballots. Louisiana law is an outlier; 39 states allow voters to vote absentee without an excuse.

Though it will not solve everything, HB 286 makes significant steps in decreasing the burden on polling places and early voting locations. Because the state typically sees the highest turnout rates during presidential elections, increasing  the number of early voting locations during presidential elections will decrease wait times for voters who cast their ballots early or on Election Day. Though Louisiana’s voting access problem will persist, HB 286 is a step in the right direction. The Legislature should promptly pass HB 286 and work to further increase in-person voting access.