Lawsuit: Louisiana doing too little to protect voting rights

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BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — Voting rights advocates filed a federal lawsuit Monday against Louisiana’s governor and chief elections officer, saying the state is doing too little to protect ballot access in November and should widen mail-in voting options amid the coronavirus outbreak.

The lawsuit was filed in Baton Rouge federal court on behalf of the Louisiana State Conference of the NAACP, the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice and three voters from Baton Rouge and Hammond. It challenges Louisiana’s restrictions on absentee by mail voting and the length of its early voting period for the Nov. 3 election — which features the presidential contest, congressional races and other competitions — and the state’s December runoff.

Without changes, “many of the state’s 2.89 million registered voters will be forced to make an unconscionable choice between voting and maintaining their health and safety, and that of their families and communities,” Zachery Morris of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which is representing the organizations and voters, said in a statement.

Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

“We have not yet been served with the lawsuit and cannot comment further at this time,” Ardoin spokesman Tyler Brey said in an email.

Ardoin crafted an emergency plan for Louisiana’s July presidential primary and August municipal elections that boosted early voting by six days and expanded mail-in balloting options for some people at higher risk from the virus. The plan was backed by Edwards and state lawmakers.

But no such plan has been offered so far for the fall elections.

The lawsuit argues the state should be making similar efforts to give voters more ways to cast their ballots for the upcoming elections, to ensure the safe exercise of voting rights, particularly for Black voters and those with underlying medical conditions who have seen disproportionate risks from COVID-19.

Edwards indicated he’d support enacting emergency provisions, but Ardoin legally has to start that process.

“It is highly likely that we will be in the same situation we are in now, with elevated COVID-19 cases across the Louisiana, which would necessitate taking extra measures to protect the health and safety of our voters and poll workers, and the voting rights of all,” Edwards spokeswoman Christina Stephens said in a statement.

“A request from the secretary of state would be the first step in that process, and something that the governor would support,” Stephens said.

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

“None of the listed absentee ‘excuses’ apply to the hundreds of thousands of voters who will be forced to risk exposure to COVID-19 to vote in person,” the lawsuit said of the disease caused by the virus.

Louisiana has one of the nation’s highest per capita rates of new COVID-19 cases in the last two weeks and continues to struggle to blunt the spread of the virus.

The emergency plan used for the state’s July and August elections let people seek an absentee-by-mail ballot if they attested on an application that they are at a higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 because of certain medical conditions; are subject to a quarantine or isolation order; are advised by a health provider to self-quarantine; are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and seeking medical confirmation; or are caring for someone who is quarantined or isolated because of the disease.

The groups that filed the latest federal lawsuit had earlier challenged Ardoin’s emergency plan for the July and August elections, arguing that it didn’t go far enough to protect people from the virus. But a federal judge disagreed and upheld that emergency plan.

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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.

By MELINDA DESLATTE Associated Press

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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