(The Center Square) – A district judge has ordered Louisiana officials to conduct this fall’s elections using the same emergency plan implemented this summer to minimize the risk of voting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, who oversees the state’s elections, had proposed a more limited plan for November and December that eliminated absentee options for voters with coronavirus-related health concerns that had been allowed in July and August.
Ardoin’s proposed plan for the fall elections, which a majority of legislators approved but Gov. John Bel Edwards rejected, would have allowed voters who test positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before Election Day to vote absentee but added no other emergency absentee ballot provisions.
The plan used this summer added exemptions for being subject to a medically necessary quarantine, experiencing COVID-19 symptoms or awaiting a diagnosis, caring for someone who is quarantined, or having a chronic health condition that imparts a higher risk of serious COVID-19 complications. It also temporarily waived the usual requirement that first-time voters must vote in person.
Three Louisiana voters, the state chapter of the NAACP, and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice sued state officials, saying the plan forced them to choose between voting and protecting their health and the health of their loved ones. They asked for universal access to absentee voting or, at a minimum, reverting to the summer plan.
Supporters of the more limited plan cited fraud concerns with mail-in ballots. But District Court Judge Shelly Dick says the defendants failed to offer “a scintilla of evidence of fraud associated with voting by mail in Louisiana” or “even a hint of fraud in the July and August primaries.”
Dick also noted that Louisiana lets voters who plan to be outside of their home parish use mail-in ballots “for reasons of mere convenience” without even verifying if that was the case.
“How, then, can the state maintain that it is necessary to disallow any Virus-related excuses to prevent voter fraud?” Dick wrote in her decision. “It cannot.”
She also cited the broader range of excuses allowed in the summer plan as an admission by state officials that COVID-19 presents legitimate health concerns for in-person voting.
“The record in this case demonstrates that, although state officials have attempted to implement precautions to make voting in person safer, even these well-intentioned efforts cannot ameliorate the risk,” she writes. “Masks will be encouraged, but not required; social distancing is aspirational but cannot be assured; and high anticipated voter turnout will produce long lines.”
She also rejected the argument that allowing the COVID-19-related exemptions would create too much of a burden to collect and tabulate the ballots, noting that the coronavirus provisions represented only a small slice of the absentee ballots used in the summer elections.
Dick called for the state to allow 10 days for early voting, as had been proposed in Ardoin’s recent plan. That’s more than the usual seven days but short of the 13 days in the summer plan, which the plaintiffs would have preferred.
Though Edwards, as governor, technically was a defendant in the lawsuit, he had called Ardoin’s plan “woefully inadequate” and his general counsel argued on behalf of the plaintiffs during last week’s hearings.
“Today’s ruling is a huge victory not only for the health and safety of the people of Louisiana, but also for their voting rights and our democracy” Edwards said in a prepared statement. “No one should have to risk their health or their life to vote, and I am relieved that the court agrees.”
Ardoin issued a statement saying he was reviewing Dick’s ruling.
“A decision as to how to proceed will be made after careful consideration of the facts is weighed with the fact that absentee voting currently underway for some voters, and early voting mere weeks away,” he said.
David Jacobs, Staff Reporter for the Center Square, is a Baton Rouge-based award-winning journalist who has written about government, politics, business, and culture in Louisiana for almost 15 years. He joined The Center Square in 2018.