BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Republican state senators on Wednesday blocked an emergency plan to expand early voting and mail-in balloting options for Louisiana's July presidential primary, rejecting calls to increase vote-by-mail options for people worried about the risk of exposure to the coronavirus in one of the nation’s larger outbreaks.
GOP Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin ran into a wall of opposition from his fellow Republicans — including objections from the state Republican Party — for his proposal.
With a 5-1 vote, the Senate and Governmental Affairs rejected an emergency certification that Ardoin needed to move ahead with the changes to polling places, early voting timelines and absentee-by-mail voting eligibility. Sen. Ed Price of Gonzales, the only Democrat to attend the hearing, was the lone supporter.
The vote's impact on the election is uncertain. Senators suggested Ardoin should make changes and return with a new proposal, but Ardoin warned he wasn't certain he could negotiate a redesigned plan in time to order the supplies he'd need to conduct a safe election, such as additional voting equipment and protective gear for poll workers.
GOP senators suggested the expansion of mail-in voting increases the potential for fraudulent balloting and jeopardizes the integrity of the July 11 presidential primary, as well as an August 15 municipal election also included in the plan.
“The heartburn that I have is related to simply the expansion of the absentee ballots. It is extremely broad and basically covers everybody in Louisiana. So, anybody could say, ‘Hey, I’m scared to death,’ and they could absentee vote,” said Sen. Barry Milligan, a Shreveport Republican. Milligan said he worried “we are opening ourselves to more risk and fraud than ever.”
Voting experts say the overall risk of fraud, either by mail-in voting or in-person voting, is extremely low across the country. Ardoin said he was confident that Louisiana's state and local elections officials have enough safeguards built into the process. He said while he doesn't support universal vote-by-mail as allowed in some other states, the current virus outbreak necessitated a wider use of mail-in ballots in Louisiana.
“This is a necessary, balanced and, most importantly, a temporary — and I stress temporary — approach in response to this crisis,” Ardoin said. “This decision was done without the political ramifications in mind. The only thing on my mind has been the safety of Louisiana and the integrity of our elections. Our plan maintains both.”
He added: “I don’t want to be Wisconsin,” where voters in some instances waited for hours in close proximity to others to cast ballots in last week's election.
Ardoin wanted to change precinct locations, relocate polling places, expand early voting from seven days to 13 days and widen the availability of mail-in absentee ballots to people impacted by the virus.
The proposal would have allowed anyone to request an mail-in ballot if they are 60 years old or older; have underlying medical conditions that make them more at risk to the virus; are experiencing symptoms of the virus; are recommended to self-isolate; or are “unable to appear in public due to concern of exposure to or transmission of COVID-19.”
Ardoin worked on the plan with Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, who called it reasonable.
But Sen. Sharon Hewitt, chair of the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee, said such significant changes could be more than what is needed to ensure safe elections by July. She suggested the plan should work in “a few more options and levers” depending on the public health situation at the time of the election.
Nearly 22,000 people in Louisiana have confirmed infections of the COVID-19 disease, and at least 1,103 people have died, according to health department data.
“So much changes in a week's time ... The first case was reported five weeks ago,” Hewitt said. “Five weeks from now things are going to look completely different than they do today.” Ardoin replied: “We don't have the luxury (of time). We have to act now for what we don't know.”