By Emily Wood
BATON ROUGE–Three bills related to voting and elections passed through the House and Senate Governmental Affairs Committees on Wednesday.
Two of the bills–one by Rep. Frederick Jones, D-Bastrop, and the other by Sen. Louie Bernard, R-Natchitoches–would extend the early voting period and create additional provisions for a noncampaigning zone during the early voting periods.
The third, by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Slidell, would mandate the secretary of state to examine voting machines if requested as well as creating certification standards for new voting systems.
Kyle Ardoin, the Louisiana secretary of state, testified on behalf of all three bills.
Hewitt’s bill, Senate Bill 221, also would create the Voting System Commission–a group of 13 members that would research possible voting systems and give a report to Ardoin to guide him on which type of voting system to seek.
Members of the commission would include members appointed by the secretary of state and the governor as well as hired election experts.
SB221 also would create the Voting System Proposal Evaluation Committee that would test the recommended voting systems.
Rep. Royce Duplessis, D-New Orleans, expressed concerns that the election legislation being authored is in response to the Republican dismay over losing the 2021 presidential election.
“There is really nothing that we can look to in the past, that I am aware of, that would lead to this level of distrust in terms of Louisiana’s elections,” said Rep. Duplessis. “I am not aware of anything prior to the November election that brought into question this level of concern of election integrity.”
Hewitt stated that this would be the first time that constituents had the opportunity to express their concerns regarding election systems. She added that she feels like the public bid process for voting systems does not work as well as the process in the private industry.
Responding to Duplessis’ concerns about the Republican voting claims after the November election, Ardoin said recent efforts to procure new voting systems in Louisiana fell “during a difficult time and eye-opening time to people around the state as to what might happen.”
“I have talked with many people around the state who have educated themselves about this process,” he said at the hearing. “They don’t want us to be like other states. They don’t want Louisiana to be in the news for months on end. They don’t want Louisiana being in an endless audit process.”
But at another hearing on Tuesday, Ardoin criticized all of the unproven claims of voting irregularities by his fellow Republicans. “I’m dead-dog tired of my staff and the clerks and the registrars and their staffs getting poked at,” he said then.
Multiple speakers came forward Wednesday in opposition to moving forward on the purchase of new voting machines, saying the state should not pay millions of dollars now for new voting systems when new technology is on the horizon.
Rep. Jones’ bill, House Bill 286, would increase the early voting period in presidential elections by four days, making the total early voting period 11 days.
“We know this is a way that we can expand and increase democracy,” said Janea Jamison, director of programs with Power Coalition for Equity and Justice.
Ardoin stated that the early voting period for the 2020 presidential election was the “heaviest” Louisiana has ever experienced. He estimated that 893,000 residents voted in-person then.
Jamison said the national average for early voting periods in other states is 19 days with some as long as 45 days.
She noted a survey LSU released in 2020 stating that 75% of residents were in favor of extending the early voting period. She added that the survey response cut across party affiliations.
Ardoin explained that adding days to the early voting period instead of additional hours to each day would ease the burden on the voting commissioners and the secretary’s staff.
Sen. Bernard’s bill, Senate Bill 64, would emphasize the state’s interest in protecting the right for citizens to vote freely. A campaign-free zone is already established in present law, but the bill would prohibit actions including voter intimidation, election, fraud, confusion and general disorder.
All three bills were reported favorably. Senate Bill 221 and Senate Bill 64 will now move to the House floor for debate. House Bill 286 will move to the Senate floor for debate.