Louisiana senators back COVID-19 rules for next election

Louisiana senators back COVID-19 rules for next election
WAFB file photo of a polling location in Louisiana. (Source: WAFB)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) - Louisiana would broaden the mail-in balloting options for spring municipal elections and two upcoming special congressional elections because of the coronavirus pandemic, under an emergency elections plan that started advancing Tuesday with lawmakers.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, Louisiana’s top elections official, wants to use the same expansion of absentee-by-mail voting that was in place for the summer and fall elections, including the November presidential competition.

Without objection Tuesday, lawmakers on the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee backed the package of COVID-19 emergency rules proposed by the Republican elections chief. A House committee planned to consider the proposal later in the day.

Republican senators who in prior debates repeatedly expressed worry about voter fraud if they expanded mail-in voting offered no such concerns this time.

Instead, they noted Ardoin’s data showed only small percentages of voters used the COVID-19 rules in submitting absentee ballots for the 2020 elections. Most mail-in votes were cast by people legally able to do it without the emergency rules.

“With all the teeth-gnashing we did over the COVID ballot, relatively few people took advantage of it,” said Slidell Republican Sen. Sharon Hewitt, chair of the Senate committee.

If approved by the House committee, the emergency rules advance to the full Legislature for a vote. In addition, the provisions would need the backing of Gov. John Bel Edwards to take effect.

The Democratic governor “is reviewing it to make sure it meets the needs of the voters during the pandemic,” Edwards spokesperson Christina Stephens said in a text message. “The expanded mail-in voting options are critical for those people who are high risk for becoming seriously ill” with COVID-19, she said.

The emergency rules would cover a Feb. 6 special election for a vacant state House seat in Lake Charles, and the March 20 and April 24 municipal elections. Edwards also is expected to schedule elections to fill two open U.S. House seats on the March date, with runoffs in April as needed.

The congressional seats are vacant because Democratic U.S. Rep. Cedric Richmond is leaving the 2nd District position to work for President-elect Joe Biden’s administration and Republican U.S. Rep.-elect Luke Letlow died of COVID-19 complications before being sworn into the 5th District job.

While Ardoin is proposing the same mail-in voting expansion used last year, he isn’t seeking to increase the number of days of early voting as he did in the previous elections.

Louisiana’s absentee balloting procedure is usually limited to people 65 or older, members of the military, overseas voters, people who are hospitalized, people who are physically disabled and people who won’t be in their parish for the election.

The emergency rules would again allow people to seek an absentee ballot if they are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of medical conditions; are subject to a quarantine order; are advised by a health provider to self-quarantine; are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or are caring for someone who is isolated because of the disease.

For the summer elections, lawmakers approved the broader mail-in voting rules. A federal judge forced Louisiana to enact similar COVID-19 voting rules for its November and December elections after Republican lawmakers balked at the idea.

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