Edwards asks judge to widen absentee balloting for elections

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Gov. John Bel Edwards is asking a federal judge to order Louisiana’s elections chief to broaden the use of absentee-by-mail voting for the fall elections because of the coronavirus pandemic.

The Democratic governor filed the request with the court Wednesday evening in an ongoing lawsuit by voting rights advocates seeking to widen mail-in balloting options for the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional election and a Dec. 5 state runoff election.

“The governor asks this court to protect the right to vote — and just as importantly, the health and safety of the people of Louisiana — by ordering the implementation of an election plan that sensibly addresses the current pandemic and safeguards constitutional rights,” wrote Edwards executive counsel Matthew Block.

Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, the Republican who manages Louisiana’s elections, proposed an emergency plan for the November and December elections with a limited expansion of absentee-by-mail voting for those who are confirmed to have the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus.

To enact the provisions, Ardoin needs support from the majority-Republican Legislature and Edwards.

Republican lawmakers have backed the plan, which is expected to give it enough votes for House and Senate passage. But Edwards intends to block it, leaving U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick to decide the rules for operating the elections. Dick has scheduled a two-day hearing starting Tuesday.

Louisiana’s absentee balloting procedure is limited to people 65 or older, members of the military, overseas voters, people who are hospitalized, people who are physically disabled and people who won’t be in their parish for the election.

Ardoin’s plan for the November and December elections would allow any voter testing positive for COVID-19 during and after early voting but before Election Day to get an absentee ballot. No other changes are proposed to who can use the absentee process.

Edwards objects because no expansion is offered for a COVID-19 quarantine, for people at greater risk of serious complications from COVID-19 or for caregivers to those particularly vulnerable to the illness.

The governor wants to use something similar to what he, Ardoin and lawmakers approved for the summer elections. That emergency plan let people seek an absentee ballot if they attested they were at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of medical conditions; were subject to a quarantine order; were advised by a health provider to self-quarantine; were experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or were caring for someone who is isolated because of the disease.

Judge Dick upheld that plan for the July and August elections in prior litigation.

Ardoin said he couldn’t get support from Republican lawmakers for such an expansion of mail-in voting this fall. He suggested Edwards is blocking other needed coronavirus-related election changes by refusing to support Ardoin’s emergency plan, such as the expansion of early voting and adjusted absentee ballot deadlines.

“I understand the vital importance of protecting the right to vote in the midst of a pandemic,” Ardoin said in a statement.

He pointed to a nonbinding legal opinion from Republican Attorney General Jeff Landry’s office that suggests people with health conditions putting them at greater risk of serious harm from COVID-19 or who are quarantined and awaiting a COVID-19 test result could get an absentee ballot under the disability excuse — “so long as a medical professional certifies that the voter is disabled.”

Edwards’ lawyer Block dismissed that idea as paying a doctor to “commit fraud.”

“No reasonable medical professional would declare someone to be disabled just so the patient could vote absentee,” Block wrote in his court filing. “That the attorney general would have to resort to such legal gymnastics just to develop a possible way for a symptomatic person to avoid standing in a lengthy line on Election Day demonstrates the need for an election plan that adequately protects the people of Louisiana and their right to vote.”

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Follow AP coverage of the pandemic at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.

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Follow Melinda Deslatte on Twitter at http://twitter.com/melindadeslatte.

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