By Catherine Hunt / LSU Manship School News Service
BATON ROUGE — A Senate committee on Wednesday rejected a bill by Sen. Regina Barrow, D-Baton Rouge, that would have expanded mail-in voting in Louisiana.
It was the second straight day that Republican lawmakers defeated a bill to allow more mail voting to minimize health risks from the coronavirus. The vote on Barrow’s bill was 6-3, with all Republicans voting against it and three Democrats voting for it.
A similar bill by Rep. Mandie Landry, D-New Orleans, was killed 9-5 by a House committee Tuesday.
Since the coronavirus outbreak, many states have expanded voting by mail in efforts to limit the spread of the virus. Even before the virus, voters in Colorado, Oregon and Washington voted entirely by mail in all elections, and red states such as Alaska, Montana, Utah and Wyoming have switched to mail-in ballots for this year’s presidential primary.
Michigan, a key swing state, announced Tuesday that it would send applications for mail-in absentee ballots to all its voters in this year’s elections, and Nevada recently announced that its primaries would be conducted through mail-in ballots.
President Trump, who opposes mail voting, threatened on Wednesday to withhold federal funds from the states for doing so, though federal officials do not have control over state election rules. Trump won Michigan in 2016, while Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton narrowly carried Nevada. Both states have Democratic governors.
Trump and other Republicans claim that expanding mail-in voting would lead to voter fraud, although national data show voter fraud is rare, especially when using mail-in ballots.
Democrats have pushed to expand voting by mail to give access to voters who may be concerned about going to the polls, especially with the risks from the COVID-19 pandemic. Louisiana’s absentee voting laws allow registered voters to vote by mail, but only under certain conditions such as military deployment, being away for college, or being 65 years of age or older. Barrow’s bill proposed removing these requirements.
“Voting is a fundamental right that I stand very strongly on,” said Barrow. “I think it’s important that we do not suppress the vote.”
Proponents argued that groups that are already underrepresented, such as blacks, are especially harmed by current absentee voting requirements.
A majority of the people who have died from COVID-19 in Louisiana are black. Although blacks make up a little more than 30 percent of the state’s population, almost 70 percent of the people who have died from COVID-19 are black, Gov. John Bel Edwards has said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Fair Elections Center and Arnold & Porter, a national law firm, filed a lawsuit Tuesday against Edwards, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and other state officials over what it called the state’s lack of safe voting options during the pandemic.
The lawsuit claims the current absentee ballot requirements violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments by placing an undue burden on the fundamental right to vote and denying voters due process.
“We should not be making folks make the choice of protecting their health and going to vote,” said Mike McClanahan, the president of the NAACP Louisiana State Conference.
Ardoin, a Republican, and Edwards, a Democrat, had agreed on an emergency election plan that would have made mail-in absentee ballots available in the presidential primary in July to anyone affected by the coronavirus or who did not want to vote in person for fear of contracting it.
But Republican lawmakers objected to that plan in March. 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.
Lawmakers also 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.