BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Louisiana appears on track to broaden the mail-in balloting options for spring municipal elections and two upcoming special congressional elections because of the coronavirus pandemic. The emergency plan easily won bipartisan support Tuesday from two key legislative committees, and Gov. John Bel Edwards announced his backing.
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. Ardoin's proposal would give voters five COVID-19-related reasons to request an absentee ballot rather than vote in person.
“We need to make certain that voting is safe and can take place amongst this pandemic,” the Republican elections chief said.
The emergency rules offered by Ardoin caused none of the controversy that marked prior debates. Lawmakers on the House and Senate governmental affairs committees approved the recommendations without objection Tuesday in separate hearings, advancing the proposal to the full Legislature for a decision.
Republican lawmakers who previously expressed worry about voter fraud if they expanded mail-in voting offered no such concerns about the emergency elections plans 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.
Fewer than 5,500 people out of the 2.1 million who voted in November used the COVID-19 excuses to cast ballots absentee by mail, Ardoin said. Across elections in July, August and December, the numbers were even smaller.
“It's tiny, tiny, tiny, the number of people” who used the expanded absentee-by-mail option, said Rep. Polly Thomas, a Metairie Republican.
Beyond the Legislature, the provisions also need Edwards' support to take effect and already have his blessing. His spokesperson Christina Stephens said the Democratic governor “has reviewed the emergency election plan to ensure it protects the voting rights and health of the public during the pandemic and will approve it.”
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 he could be sworn into the 5th District job.
While Ardoin is proposing the same mail-in voting expansion used last year, he is not 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.
Follow AP’s coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/hub/coronavirus-pandemic and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak. Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.