BATON ROUGE, La. — A federal judge in the Middle District of Louisiana ruled Wednesday that Louisiana should extend its early voting period and provide more access to absentee mail-in ballots during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“The Court finds that Plaintiffs’ testimony clearly establishes that the state’s maintenance of limited absentee by mail voting imposes a burden on their right to vote,” Dick wrote in the ruling. “The burden on the right to vote is further supported by significant record evidence.”
The ruling from U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick states that the early voting period for the Nov. 3 election will be increased to a 10-day period from Friday, Oct. 16 to Tuesday Oct. 27, excluding Sundays, from 8 a.m. - 7 p.m. each day.
Dick also ruled that the COVID-19 Ballot Applications used in the July and August 2020 elections should be made available for the Nov. 3 election and that absentee by mail ballots should be supplied to voters who validly request absentee ballots through the COVID-19 Ballot Application for both the Nov. 3 general election and the Dec. 5 runoff election.
“The Emergency Election Plan put in place for July and August, which added Virus-related excuses to vote by mail, was not broken; the bumbling attempts to fix what was not broken have brought us to today,” wrote Dick. “Instead of leaving in place COVID-19 responsive mail voting opportunities, Secretary Ardoin proposed that ‘any registered voter testing positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before election day’ should be allowed to vote by mail.”
The court heard witness testimony through videoconferencing last week as well as several documents both in support and against the move to expand voting rules.
Dick’s ruling could be appealed to the U.S. Court of Appeals Fifth Circuit in New Orleans before the Nov. 3 election.
According to the Federal Judicial Center, Dick was nominated by President Barack Obama on Jan. 4, 2013, to serve on a seat vacated by Ralph E. Tyson. She was confirmed by the Senate on May 9, 2013, and received commission on May 10, 2013.
According to the Advocate, two Baton Rouge voters asked the federal court to stop Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin from using an emergency election plan that limited the use of mail-in ballots fearing that standing in line waiting to vote would become a super-spreader event. The individual voters were joined by the Louisiana branch of the NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity & Justice, a voter rights group. The Plaintiffs argued in the case, Harding v Edwards, that fear of catching the easy spreading COVID-19 would prevent a large number of voters from participating in the Nov. 3 election and the Dec. 5 runoff, where needed.
Ardoin released the following statement Wednesday following the ruling:
We have received and are currently reviewing Judge 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.
Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was named as a defendant in the ruling, also released a statement Wednesday about Dick’s ruling, which his office said supported his request to implement a safer emergency election plan for Louisiana, including more options to vote by mail, in line with how elections were held in June and July in the state.
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.
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