(The Center Square) – Testimony concluded Wednesday in the court case that could decide how Louisiana runs elections scheduled for November and December.
U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick said she would issue a written ruling “as quickly as humanly possible.”
Plaintiffs in the case argue that by restricting the number of people who can vote absentee and reducing the number of early voting days compared to the state’s last two elections, the state is forcing people with COVID-19-related concerns to choose between their health and their community’s health and the right to vote.
Defenders of the state’s plan say it includes enough precautions to safely hold the elections and that voting in person has not been proven particularly risky.
Two Louisiana voters, the state chapter of the NAACP, and the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice sued Gov. John Bel Edwards, a Democrat, and Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin. Even though Edwards is a defendant, he and the plaintiffs have both endorsed using a more expansive emergency plan that was used during this summer’s elections rather than the more restrictive plan Ardoin proposed for the fall.
Lawmakers in April approved an emergency plan for elections held in July and August that expanded early voting from seven days to 13 and added new COVID-19-related reasons to request an absentee ballot. But Ardoin said legislative leaders told him they could not support using the same plan for the elections set for November and December.
Ardoin in August presented a plan that would allow voters who test positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before Election Day to vote absentee but includes no other emergency absentee ballot provisions. Attorney General Jeff Landry has issued an opinion that a voter who is diagnosed with COVID-19, who is subject to a quarantine order while awaiting a COVID-19 diagnosis, or is at high risk for serious COVID-19 complications can vote absentee under the state's existing disability excuse so long as a medical professional certifies the disability.
Plaintiffs say requiring people with health concerns to get a doctor’s note to vote absentee essentially forces people to pay to vote. They also argue caretakers of people who are at high risk of serious COVID-19 complications should be able to vote absentee.
Commissioner of Elections Sharon Wharton Hadskey said she expects more people will vote absentee in light of Landry’s opinion. In a presidential election when about 65 percent of eligible residents are expected to vote, the amount of time needed to count mail ballots could prevent Louisiana from reporting election results on Election Day.
Hadskey acknowledged Ardoin did not consult state public health officials before crafting the plan. She agreed with Matthew Block, Edwards’ general counsel, that the pandemic still presents health risks for in-person voting but said the concerns had lessened since the “stay at home” order was issued in March.
When looking at several states, elections are not correlated with spikes in COVID-19, according to evidence a witness for the Secretary of State presented.
Brandon Abadie, elections administrator for the East Baton Rouge Clerk of Court, said his staff reported widespread compliance with the safety measures such as maintaining six feet of distance between people. But he said social distancing wasn’t always possible for poll workers at the facilities provided for voting, which are chosen by local officials.
“We have to take what they give us,” he said.