Federal judge: Louisiana must expand mail voting access for Nov. 3 election

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BATON ROUGE, La. (WVLA/KTAL) — Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin says his office is reviewing the ruling issued Wednesday by a federal judge ordering the reinstatement of coronavirus pandemic voting plans used for summer elections rather than using a more restrictive plan proposed and approved by the Legislature for elections in November and December.

“The state’s failure to provide accommodation for pandemic-affected voters is likely unconstitutional because it imposes an undue burden on Plaintiffs’ right to vote,” U.S. District Chief Judge Shelly Dick of Baton Rouge wrote in her opinion Wednesday.

The plan used in July and August, which had five pandemic-related reasons for getting mail-in ballots, worked just fine, she wrote. It “was not broken; the bumbling attempts to fix what was not broken have brought us to today,” wrote the chief judge for the United States District Court for the Middle District of Louisiana.

“We have received and are currently reviewing Judge Dick’s ruling,” Ardoin said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon. “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.”

Dick said the state must allow mail-in voting for people with conditions that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has listed as making people more vulnerable to COVID-19, their caretakers, and three other groups. She also ordered expansion of early voting from seven days to 10 for the Nov. 3 presidential election but not for a Dec. 5 election.

The 44-page decision comes a week after she heard testimony from both sides in a federal suit over the plan.

Plaintiffs against Ardoin’s plan have suggested the state let more people vote by mail, instead of at public polling sites, in an effort to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. They have recommended giving mail-in ballots to those with COVID-19 symptoms, caregivers and those with higher health risks.

Defendants in the state’s election office have contended that widespread absentee voting would delay the vote-counting process, but Dick noted in her ruling that “the Louisiana Commissioner of Elections testified at the hearing that the integrity of the state’s election process is already threatened, even without any Virus related expansion of mail balloting” because of a surge in mail-in ballot requests from voters aged 65 and older.

“A potential expansion of mail voting to accommodate voters with comorbidities or caretakers has nothing whatsoever to do with the state’s failure to be prepared to tabulate mail votes,” Dick wrote, adding that “Louisianans aged 65 and older have had the right vote by mail on the basis of age for thirteen years. The right, so extended to the voters of the state, gives rise to an attendant duty on the state to facilitate that vote.”

Ardoin’s plan would have only expanded mail-in voting access to voters who test positive for COVID-19 between early voting and Election Day. Gov. John Bel Edwards rejected the plan for the November election and filed a memorandum in support of the plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit.

Edwards also released a statement following the ruling, calling it a “victory for the health, safety, and right to vote of Louisianians.”

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. No one should have to risk their health or their life to vote, and I am relieved that the court agrees. Simply put: COVID-19 remains a serious problem in Louisiana and voting should not be a super spreader event.

It was obvious to anyone who pays attention to the COVID crisis that the failure to put forth an election plan to protect voters at risk for COVID-19 was inappropriate and unsafe. More fundamentally, as noted by Judge Shelly Dick, ‘the state’s failure to provide accommodation for pandemic-affected voters is likely unconstitutional because it imposes an undue burden on Plaintiffs’ right to vote.’ The failure to implement the very same plan that was submitted by the Secretary of State for the July and August elections would have caused voters to either forgo voting or disregard medical guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control. It further would have required people who are at high risk for serious COVID complications and even for those who are exposed and should be in quarantine to risk exposing others by voting in person. Thankfully, Judge Dick agreed that this is unacceptable. 

The Secretary of State should accept the Court’s ruling and immediately implement the election plan for the upcoming election in November, as ordered. It is unfortunate that thousands of taxpayer dollars were wasted by the Attorney General defending this woefully inadequate emergency election plan. The taxpayers and voters in Louisiana deserve better. Between COVID-19 and Hurricane Laura, our state has much work to do before early voting begins. I pledge to support this effort to ensure that all Louisianans can safely vote, in person or by mail if they qualify

Statement released by Gov. John Bel Edwards

Defendants may appeal Dick’s decision before the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in New Orleans.

Louisiana is one of six states that require a state-approved excuse to acquire a mail-in ballot.

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