By Paige Daniel and Abigail Hendren / LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — Three blue states —Washington, Oregon and Colorado —conduct all of their elections through mail-in votes and four red states — Wyoming, Montana, Utah and Alaska — are joining them this year in conducting their presidential primaries entirely through mail ballots.
Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, 28 other states have announced plans to increase access to absentee ballots or take other actions to keep voters from lining up at polling places.
Yet in deciding on Tuesday to delay Louisiana’s presidential primary to July 11, the Legislature insisted state election officials scale back plans to rely less on in-person voting and more on mail voting to reduce the health risks.
Republican legislators expressed concern that more mail-in ballots could increase the potential for voter fraud. National election experts have said there have been few instances of fraud as other states have expanded voting by mail. Some speculate once the risks from the virus ease, Louisiana could increase voter turnout if greater use of alternative voting methods are used.
Voter turnout in governor’s races in Louisiana declined steadily for decades, from 54 percent in 1979 to 31 percent in 2011 before rebounding to 51 percent in the fall, according to the Louisiana Secretary of State’s office. Turnout in presidential elections in Louisiana has stayed higher, at 55 to 60 percent of eligible voters, though voting-rights advocates fear it could slip this year if voters do not feel safe.
Voting by mail is “something we’ve thought was important for a while now, but with the current state of the world, we now believe it is not only important, but essential to the democratic process,” Catherine McKinney, the director of the Louisiana Vote-by-Mail initiative, said.
“Now it is not only easier but imperative to keeping our poll workers and our voters safe from a global pandemic,” she said.
Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, and Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, agreed on an emergency election plan that would have made mail-in absentee ballots available in the presidential primary to anyone affected by the coronavirus or who did not want to vote in person for fear of catching it.
Sen. Barry Milligan, R-Shreveport, helped shoot down that plan at a hearing April 15, saying it was “extremely broad and basically covers everyone in Louisiana.”
“There is not an election cycle that goes through that we wake up to the news that votes are found in somebody’s garage or somebody’s truck,” Milligan said.
Milligan’s 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.” He also maintained that if vote-by-mail were expanded, “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Numerous studies show, however, that mail-ballot fraud is rare. According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a non-partisan institute in New York, none of the states that hold elections by mail have had any voter fraud scandals.
Under a compromise approved by the Legislature, Louisiana residents who are already allowed to mail in absentee ballots, such as those age 65 and older, will be able to vote by mail in the presidential primary and in state elections in August. Because of the threat from the virus, people with serious medical conditions or those who are quarantined or taking care of someone quarantined also will be able to mail ballots.
But lawmakers blocked other proposals by Ardoin to temporarily allow voting by mail for people between ages 60 and 65 or those caring for a child whose school was closed. They also rejected his plan to extend early voting in person to 13 days from seven. No changes have been considered for the presidential election in November.
Colorado, Oregon and Washington were voting entirely by mail long before the COVID-19 outbreak.
Colorado implemented mail-in ballots in 2013. Its voter turnout rate was 51.7 percent. in 2010, but in its 2018 gubernatorial election, nearly 62 percent of eligible voters mailed in ballots.
Voter turnout in Washington is typically around 70 percent of registered voters with all-mail voting. At least 60 percent of people in Washington chose the option to vote by mail before the state switched to sending mail-in ballots to all registered voters.
Even though it was at the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak, Washington had a 50 percent turnout rate for its presidential primary in March, because of its focus on mail voting. Louisiana’s voter turnout in the 2016 presidential primary was only 28 percent of registered voters.
Before the pandemic, Louisiana was one of only 16 states that required voters to submit a valid excuse to obtain an absentee. In the 2016 general election, only 1.8 percent of Louisiana’s registered voters cast absentee ballots.
Ardoin and legislators from both parties say they want to avoid a situation like Wisconsin just went through in its presidential primary on April 7.
That state's Republican leaders rejected proposals to loosen restrictions on voting because of the virus, and they were backed by the U.S. Supreme Court. Long lines ensued, and 52 Wisconsin voters and poll workers have since been diagnosed with COVID-19, though it is unclear where their exposures occurred.
Given the health risks, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo canceled the state’s Democratic primary altogether. Ohio, a key swing state, was one of the first states to move forward with a last-minute plan to vote by mail. Results of that change were mixed in its primary on Tuesday, with many citizens failing to receive an absentee ballot in time to cast their vote.
Besides vote-by-mail, some states have implemented other alternative voting methods — either before the COVID-19 outbreak or since — to make voting more accessible and increase turnout.
These include same-day registration, in which people can register online or at the polls on election days, and holidays from work for voting. Georgia and Colorado, both states with average turnout rates over 50 percent, have holidays on election days, while Louisiana does not.
Early, in-person voting has expanded in Louisiana, with 33 percent of those who cast ballots in the 2019 gubernatorial election voting early.
But “if you want to vote early, you have to go to a central location,” said Dr. Brian Brox, a Tulane University professor. Other states have implemented early voting that actually incorporates satellite early voting, where they basically have more places in the county, rather than having to go to the courthouse.”
Virginia and Maryland are among the states that have lifted restrictions on voting since the COVID-19 outbreak. Virginia removed its excuse requirement for absentee ballots, loosened voter identification laws and expanded its early-voting period. It also made election day a holiday.
Brox contends that lawmakers in Louisiana have not been interested in removing more of the barriers because the voters who manage to overcome them are the ones who put them in office.
“There needs to be a way to kind of get around the gatekeepers, who are basically the legislators,” he said.
Lawmakers, of course, disagree.
“I’m not going to spend the thousand hours of effort to come up with good solutions to these problems,” Rep. Barry Ivey, R-Central, said in an interview on this subject last year. “I do not feel that as a state our voting opportunities in the aggregate are subpar. I believe we’re probably above average in that category.”
But in the congressional election in November 2018, Louisiana ranked 45 out of 50 states and the District of Columbia in the percentage of voters who turned out, according to data compiled by Dr. Michael McDonald at the University of Florida.
Republican strategists fear that expanding the use of mail ballots would increase voter turnout among poorer people who would not vote for them. But greater use of mail ballots also could help Republicans, especially if Louisiana gets a second wave of COVID-19 in the fall and older voters are reluctant to go to the polls.
If the virus ramps up again then, McKinney said, “Under no circumstances should the state of Louisiana put our poll workers or our voters in harm's way when such a simple solution is available like vote-by-mail.”