Citing COVID-19, Federal Judge Orders Expanded Louisiana Mail Voting

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Louisiana must offer more opportunity for voters to use mail ballots if they fear consequences from COVID-19, a federal judge has ruled over the objection of state officials. The Lafayette Daily Advertiser has more:

A federal judge granted expanded use of mail-in ballots for the November election, ruling Wednesday that Louisiana must allow voters to cast ballots by mail if they certify they are quarantining for COVID-19 or at risk because of underlying health conditions.

The ruling will allow Louisiana’s voters to request absentee ballots for the Nov. 3 general election and Dec. 5 runoff if they personally certify they are COVID-positive, quarantining pending COVID-19 test results, at greater risk because of comorbidities or caring for someone who fits those criteria.

It will also require early voting for the Nov. 3 election to be held 10 days from Oct. 16, through Oct. 27, excluding Sundays, after prior plans limited early voting to a standard seven-day period.

The ruling supports the position of the state’s governor, who sought to expand mail balloting over the objection of the Attorney General and Secretary of State:

The judge’s ruling affirms Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards’ efforts to expand voter mail-in ballot access, while rejecting arguments from state Republican leaders.

“Today’s ruling is a huge victory not only for the health and safety of the people of Louisiana, but also for their voting rights and our democracy,” Edwards said in a written statement. “No one should have to risk their health or their life to vote, and I am relieved that the court agrees. Simply put: COVID-19 remains a serious problem in Louisiana and voting should not be a super spreader event.”

Similar mail-in ballot rules were in place during elections held in July and August. But an election plan approved in August put more stringent requirements on mail-in voting, which Attorney General Jeff Landry said required voters to get a doctor’s note certifying they were disabled by the virus or comorbidities in order to vote by mail.

But U.S. Chief District Judge Shelly Dick of Louisiana’s Middle District Court in Baton Rouge ruled the state’s doctor’s excuse requirement was an undue burden on voters.

“Overall, the court finds that (Landry’s) adherence to the statutory Excuse Requirement, which fails to make provisions for voters with comorbidities or voters who care for the frail and infirm to safely vote, imposes a burden on Plaintiff’s right to vote,” Dick wrote.

The court was also critical of the state’s decision to roll back expanded voting options used this summer:

Dick also criticized efforts by Landry, Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin and the state’s Republican-led Legislature for dropping the expanded access to voting that was allowed during the July and August elections, saying the plan for the prior elections was functional and that political appeasement had prompted the lawsuit.

“The Emergency Election Plan put in place for July and August, which added virus-related excuses to vote by mail, was not broken,” Dick wrote. “The bumbling attempts to fix what was not broken have brought us to today.”

The judge also rejected the state’s rules requiring voters to get a “doctor’s note” in support of a mail ballot request:

Early in the trial last week, Dick indicated she believed the doctor’s note requirement was burdensome given the COVID-19 pandemic’s threat to in-person voters. She made the comment after an attorney for Louisiana’s NAACP and the Power Coalition for Equity argued that the requirement was akin to a poll tax levied against certain voters.

“The court is inclined to agree with the plaintiffs that this imposes a monetary burden on a voter to get an opinion and certification from a physician as to a disability,” she said during a Sep. 14 virtual hearing.

In her Wednesday ruling, Dick lambasted arguments made by lawyers for Landry and Ardoin, saying Landry’s opinion requiring doctors’ notes for mail-in ballots would create absurd situations. For example, she noted eye doctors could certify patients waiting for COVID-19 tests results as disabled and eligible to vote by mail, even as Dr. Philip Barie, a witness on Landry and Ardoin’s behalf, testified that he wouldn’t certify a potential voter as disabled and eligible to vote absentee if they were awaiting test results.

“By the plain language of Landry’s opinion, a voter can ask an optometrist for a note that says she is disabled because she was tested for COVID-19 but has not yet received the results,” Dick wrote. “The situation is an absurdity and yet, is specifically permitted by the Attorney General’s Opinion.”

The SoS is weighing whether or not to appeal – though the Governor is urging him not to with Election Day less than seven weeks away:

Ardoin issued a statement following Wednesday’s ruling saying his office is reviewing the ruling and its options for appeal since the state is just over a month away from the new start of early voting.

“A decision as to how to proceed will be made after careful consideration of the facts is weighed with the fact that absentee voting (is) currently underway for some voters, and early voting (is) mere weeks away,” Ardoin said.

The decision could be appealed to the U.S. Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, though Ardoin’s spokesperson Tyler Brey said Wednesday the secretary’s statement will stand until a decision is reached on a potential appeal.

Edwards urged Ardoin to forego any appeals to prepare for the election.

“The Secretary of State should accept the court’s ruling and immediately implement the election plan for the upcoming election in November, as ordered,” Edwards said.

Either way, this ruling is significant because of the focus it will put on COVID-related mail balloting rules; most states have given voters considerable leeway to decide their own level of risk when choosing how to cast a ballot. States, like Louisiana, that have not are likely to see challenges like this – and the accompanying uncertainty about voting procedures – in the last weeks before Election Day. Stay tuned …

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