By Matthew H. Schmitt / LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — House and Senate committees on Wednesday approved an emergency plan that delays the state’s presidential primary until July 11 and limits efforts to expand the use of absentee ballots because of the coronavirus.
The plan prepared by Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin reduces the list of reasons that he had proposed last week for voters to qualify to vote by mail.
Ardoin shortened the list after the Republicans on the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee rejected his earlier proposal in a party-line vote.
Under the new plan, voters can still seek absentee ballots if they are at higher risk from the virus because of serious medical conditions or are subject to a medical quarantine order. People with symptoms of COVID-19 or caring for someone subject to a quarantine order also may seek absentee ballots.
The rules also would apply to state and local elections on Aug. 15. The plan must be approved by the full House and Senate and by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
No changes have been considered for the presidential and congressional elections in November.
Ardoin’s original proposal also would have extended the early-voting period from seven to 13 days to allow for less concentrated groups of people gathering to cast their votes. It would have lowered an age threshold for requesting absentee ballots to 60 and older from 65 and older and allowed anyone who was worried about health risks to vote absentee.
Ardoin, a Republican, dropped those provisions after legislators complained last week that anyone could claim they had health concerns and qualify for an absentee ballot, potentially increasing the risk of some fraud.
“It seems like we are opening ourselves to more risk and fraud than ever,” Sen. Barry Milligan, R-Shreveport, said then.
His comments echoed concerns expressed by President Donald Trump, who claimed recently that "mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country, because they're cheaters.”
Most political experts, however, say that vote-by-mail is trustworthy and effective and that there have been few signs of voter fraud in states using such systems.
Additionally, Louisiana has a ballot tracking system in place for absentee ballots.
“I have not given up any precautionary measures that we operate under,” Ardoin assured lawmakers Wednesday.
Catherine McKinney, an LSU student who started an initiative to advocate for more mail-in ballots, added that “in a vote-by-mail method, you have paper ballots and a paper trail that you don’t get in a typical voting method. Everything is the same, if not better.”
Ardoin also said he was trying to avoid the problems that occurred in Wisconsin, which was criticized for forcing voters to turn out in person for its presidential primary in the midst of the virus outbreak.
Ardoin has described the images of voters standing in lines in Wisconsin week as “shocking.”
Louisiana was the first state to adjust its presidential primary in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The primary was scheduled for April 4, but Gov. Edwards then postponed it to June 20 and again to July 11.
Rep. Stephanie Hilferty, R-Metairie, was among the lawmakers who supported these actions. She said going ahead with the election earlier would have had a more severe impact on voter turnout since residents would have been hesitant to go out and vote.
Hilferty also said a substantial number of election-day commissioners are over the age of 65 and, therefore, more at risk for COVID-19.
Some question if the primary election even worth it at this point.
Bob Mann, a professor at LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication of LSU, does not think so. Since Bernie Sanders dropped out of the Democratic race and President Trump and Vice President Joe Biden are the de-facto nominees, “the outcome has already been determined,” he said.
But Sanders remains on the official ballot, and Ardoin said the election is still needed to decide how to allocate Louisiana’s delegates.
Ardoin’s final plan came after days of debate and discussion. He said that his office has thought of every possibility to ensure the right to vote in both elections. One of those ideas was to implement a drive-through voting method to prevent the spread of COVID-19, though that is not being implemented now.
In his closing statement before the House committee on Wednesday, Ardoin became emotional as he encouraged the committee to pass the legislation.
“I have watched my colleagues work hours and hours and hours, plan after plan after plan, to deliver democracy to the people of Louisiana,” he said. “It takes true dedication to do that, because the pay is not great.”