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In Louisiana, virus-era election plan crafted

by Joshua Specht

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With his original plan soundly rejected by his fellow Republicans, Louisiana’s top election official Tuesday offered a new proposal to safely hold summer elections in the state during the coronavirus pandemic.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s plan, again, includes a proposal to lengthen early voting by about a week and increase mail-in voting options. But his new mail-in ballot plan has a more limited list of those who would be eligible to request the absentee-by-mail ballots.

Ardoin’s latest proposal came as the number of deaths linked to COVID-19 in Louisiana reached 1,405, an increase of 77 from the day before, according to figures released by the state health department.

The number of known cases of coronavirus infections, as officials continue to work to increase testing, reached 24,854, up from 24,523 a day earlier.

Despite the spike in the death toll and the growth in overall cases, there continued to be relatively good news in the figures. The number hospitalized in the state remains under, 1,800 after having peaked at 2,134 earlier this month. And the number needing ventilators fell below 300 in Tuesday’s figures. It had peaked at 571 in early April.

Despite the positive trends, Gov. John Bel Edwards said it’s still too early to say whether it will be safe to significantly ease up on business closures on May 1, after his current stay-at-home order expires, though he did say he won’t simply extend what’s in place.

Growing fears about the spreading virus have twice prompted postponement of a Louisiana presidential primary that had been set for April 4. It’s now set for July, and there are more elections set in August.

A state Senate panel last week rejected Ardoin’s more expansive proposal along party lines, with GOP members defeating it. Ardoin said he consulted with Republican legislative leaders and Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry in developing his latest plan.

Edwards said he discussed the rewritten version with Ardoin on Tuesday afternoon.

“That draft plan was calibrated to make sure it would enjoy the support of a majority of folks on the House and Senate governmental affairs committees,” the Democratic governor said during his daily coronavirus news conference. “I think it’s a reasonable plan under the circumstances.”

Legislative committees were scheduled to review the latest proposal Wednesday.

Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, the chair of the Senate committee that rejected Ardoin’s prior version, said on Twitter that the latest version was “greatly improved” and indicated she expected approval.

Virus figures released this week by the health department noted that black residents, who make up about a third of the state’s population, account for about 56% of known coronavirus deaths.

U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond, a New Orleans Democrat, discussed some of the contributing factors Tuesday in an online “town hall” on theadvocate.com and nola.com.

He touched on issues contributing to health disparities, including the lack of access to healthy food and health insurance in poor and minority communities. He also said African American and lower income workers had fewer options to stay home when officials started advising social distancing.

“When it became mandatory, that’s one thing, but in the beginning it was a suggestion,” Richmond said. “And the more affluent you were, the more you could afford to self-isolate. And in too many communities, if both parents go to work and the child is off of school, virtual schooling but at home … they bring the child to the grandparents’ house, which is, under these circumstances, the last place you really want to bring them.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that usually clear up within weeks. For some, it can cause severe illness and be life-threatening.

Also Tuesday, the American Civil Liberties Union of Louisiana urged the New Orleans Police Department to abandon plans announced Monday to set up checkpoints where police could check whether motorists are wearing seat belts and “verbally provide information” about city stay-at-home orders.

“Rather than stopping the spread of COVID-19, these checkpoints will exacerbate it by needlessly increasing the interactions between police and the public,” said Alanah Odoms Hebert, ACLU of Louisiana executive director, in a news release questioning the constitutionality of checkpoints.

McGill reported from New Orleans.

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