NEW ORLEANS, La. (WDSU) — The coronavirus is forcing officials to take a long look at how elections can be held safely, especially ahead of the fall elections where turnout is expected to be high for the presidential race. Louisiana Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin is reaching out to senior citizens to give them the option to vote by mail, an option otherwise available only with an excuse.

Voting rights advocates say much more could be done to ensure ballots can be cast safely and securely.

“We should be maximizing people’s opportunity to exercise their fundamental rights,” said Chris Kaiser, ACLU of Louisiana advocacy director. But he is concerned that rapidly changing election rules in the midst of a pandemic could have a chilling effect on voting.

“In many cases, people who … their health and well-being (are)most at risk from this pandemic are the folks whose interests are also at most risk in the election.”

The secretary of state sent letters April 1 to some 315,000 Louisiana seniors to let them know they could be added to a program that’s been around since 2010 that allows them to vote by mail. When WDSU Investigates asked about the state’s mailing list for those voters, it was discovered another 300,000 should have been on it.

“It was a human error,” Ardoin said in a June 2 interview. “I’m appreciative of us catching it and moving forward to quickly expedite letters to those additional people that can participate in this program. “

WDSU took a closer look at the political party demographics in Louisiana for voters 65 and older to determine how well they represent all voters in the state. Does their access to mail in voting give an edge to a particular party?

A majority of Louisiana’s 65 and older voters are Democrats (54%). Compare that to all registered voters, of which democrats make up 41%. The number of senior Republicans (33%) is on par with the general population (32%), but independents and other parties, who comprise 27% of all Louisiana voters, are underrepresented by more than half (13%) among voters 65 and older.

These numbers were as of June, after Ardoin’s initial outreach to seniors but before most of the 300,000 he had left out were contacted.

Before April 1, 92,222 seniors were registered in the state’s program to receive mail-in ballots year-round. As of June 9, another 2,500 had signed up. That’s an increase of less than 3% – or less than 1% of all voters 65 and older.

Although very few people are opting for mail-in ballots, Ardoin has resisted efforts to open it up all voters, even if the federal government covers the cost to help contain the spread of the coronavirus. He testified before a congressional subcommittee June 11 that’s evaluating what measures are being taken to ensure safe elections.

“Receiving one-time money during an unprecedented crisis at the expense of radically changing our election system is a tradeoff we’re not willing to make,” Ardoin told lawmakers.

Myrna Perez directs the voting rights and elections program for the Brennan Center of Justice at New York University. She’s appeared before Congress multiple times, most recently to call for more resources to be directed to the state for their elections.

She challenges assertions that efforts to increase voting by mail would tarnish election results, adding that the extremely rare instances of voter fraud shouldn’t dissuade voters or officials from expanding ballot access.

“This is not requiring everybody to vote by mail,” Perez said. “This is giving voters more options so they that can do whatever they need to do to take care of their family, and not have to choose their fundamental right to vote and being safe in the time of an international pandemic.”

Earlier this month for party primaries in Georgia, voters stood in line for hours to cast ballots in person. Mail-in ballots are available by request without an excuse needed, but officials said thousands of those votes weren’t counted because of software and scanner problems.

Perez said states need more money and personnel to make sure they’re able to handle what’s expected to be a surge in mail-in voting this fall.

“The answer is not to tell voters that they have to wait in long lines,” she said. “In the past, long lines were disenfranchising and deterring. Now they could be deadly. “

Five states send out mail-in ballots to voters for every election. In 28 states and Washington, D.C., any voter can request and a mail ballot.

Louisiana is one of 17 states where you need an excuse with proof to vote by mail, like being sick, disabled, out of town or in the military. A bill in the Louisiana Legislature proposed making mail-in ballots available to all voters; it failed in committee last month.

Alabama also requires an excuse to vote absentee by mail, and voters there must have an affidavit notarized and signed by two witnesses in order for their vote to be counted. Voting rights experts have sued the state to remove that requirement, which they say is onerous for the poor and infirm.

Voting rights advocates say their concern is that if Louisiana voters feel the only way they can stay safe during elections is to stay home, then many of them will stay silent on Election Day.

“In the crisis we’re experiencing now, it is really hard to argue that (voting by mail) should not be available to everybody,” Perez said.

By: Greg LaRose