Louisiana election chief warns of logistics issues this fall

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FILE – In this July 20, 2018, file photo, then-interim Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, R-Baton Rouge, talks to reporters about his last-minute decision to run in the special election for secretary of state, in Baton Rouge, La. Ardoin said Tuesday, March 10, 2020, the state is restarting its stalled effort to replace its voting machines. (AP Photo/Melinda Deslatte, File)

BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — With Louisiana’s Republican lawmakers and Democratic governor unable to reach an agreement on an emergency elections plan, the state’s elections chief warned Thursday that he may have difficulties administering the fall elections during the coronavirus pandemic.

A federal judge is likely to determine how much logistical freedom Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin gets to manage the Nov. 3 presidential and congressional election and a Dec. 5 state runoff election.

That has Ardoin worried that he won’t have some of the flexibility he wants to run the elections — to adjust polling locations, recruit more poll commissioners, expand early voting and tweak absentee balloting deadlines. Without it, Ardoin said he doesn’t believe Louisiana will have complete results on election night and could see people packed into unsafe voting locations.

Ardoin proposed an emergency plan, but a dispute over how much to widen Louisiana’s absentee balloting rules has caused a stalemate between GOP lawmakers and Gov. John Bel Edwards. Republicans want a very limited expansion only for people who test positive for the virus, while Edwards and Democrats wants a wider list of virus-related excuses to vote absentee by mail.

“The consequences of not having a plan are far greater and far worse than this plan,” Ardoin told senators. “If we don’t have a plan, we will have issues … logistical, serious problems.”

A House committee backed Ardoin’s proposal Wednesday, and the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee voted 5-3 for the plan Thursday. The full Legislature will vote on the proposal — but Edwards already has said he’ll reject it if it reaches his desk. The House, Senate and governor all must approve an emergency elections plan for it to take effect.

The impasse likely will leave a federal judge to determine how Louisiana runs its fall elections, because of a pending lawsuit filed by voting rights advocates that seeks to widen mail-in voting options.

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 the coronavirus during and after early voting but before Election Day to use the hospitalization excuse to get an absentee ballot. No other changes are proposed to who can use the absentee process.

Edwards opposes Ardoin’s plan because it doesn’t expand absentee-by-mail balloting for those who are in quarantine because of exposure to the coronavirus or those at particular risk to adverse consequences from it.

But while the focus is on the dispute over mail-in balloting, Ardoin said he needs the emergency plan for other reasons.

He wants to expand who is eligible to work as poll commissioners, to ensure the state doesn’t face a shortage. He wants flexibility for precinct changes to ensure he can allow for distancing of voters in line. And he wants extra time to prepare absentee ballots for tabulation, saying without that, he expects results could be delayed beyond election night.

Ardoin also proposes increasing Louisiana’s early voting period from seven days to 10 days and adding an extra 1.5 hours of voting time to each day for the Nov. 3 election to offer more time for thousands of voters to cast their ballots.

To address concerns about delays in mail processing through the U.S. Postal Service, Ardoin’s plan also would allow parishes to set up curbside drop-off stations where people can hand their absentee ballots to someone in person rather than put them in the mail, if parish registrars of voters agree.

But without approval from Edwards, a federal judge will decide which pieces of Ardoin’s proposal will happen.

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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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