In an unprecedented move, Louisiana’s top election official wants to require a positive Covid-19 test if a voter wants to vote absentee over concerns about the virus. This comes amid a lack of consistent access to testing in the state.
Louisiana is one of seven states that will still require an excuse to vote by mail this year, only allowing absentee voting if a voter is aged 65 or older or meets certain other conditions such as temporary absence from their county or hospitalization.
For its elections in July and August, Louisiana eased those restrictions for voters at risk of developing complications from Covid-19 or who had potential exposure to the virus. But under secretary of state Kyle Ardoin’s proposal for the state’s November and December elections released Monday, those accommodations won’t apply. Instead, a voter would need to test positive for Covid-19 between the end of early voting and election day, currently a week-long period to use the hospitalization excuse to request a mail-in ballot.
The proposal from Ardoin, a Republican, comes as Louisiana has seen lags in testing, meaning a voter could get tested and not have their results in time to be able to request a mail-in ballot. Louisiana has seen 138,485 cases of Covid-19 and 4,526 deaths so far. In April, African Americans accounted for 70% of Covid-19 deaths in the state.
The proposal would exclude “thousands” of eligible Louisiana voters from being able to vote by mail and ignores the limited availability of testing, said Zachery Morris, an attorney at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is suing the state over its preparations in November.
“Restriction of emergency absentee ballot eligibility exclusively to individuals who test positive for Covid-19 during and after the early voting period but before Election Day is an inexplicably narrow classification,” he said.
Ardoin’s plan allows for 10 days of early voting and would add an additional 1.5 hours for the polls to be open each day, less than the 13 days of early voting the state offered this summer, according to the Associated Press.
Louisiana does not typically see large numbers of voters cast mail-in ballots and Ardoin wrote in the proposal there simply wasn’t time to expand the program ahead of November and would lead to voter confusion. The state currently faces a federal lawsuit from voting rights groups who said earlier this month it was not doing enough to protect voters for this November’s elections.
“While most other states are expanding safe voting options for the November elections, Louisiana is going backwards,” said Ashley Shelton, executive director, Power Coalition for Equity and Justice, a civic action group that is one of the plaintiffs in the case.
This approach is stricter than some other states when it comes to easing voting restrictions. Alabama, Arkansas and Kentucky, for example, require voters to produce an acceptable excuse to request to vote by mail, but all three states have said concerns over Covid-19 will be an acceptable excuse for the fall. But in his recommendation, Ardoin noted that very few voters were using Covid-19 as an excuse to vote in elections this year. In the state’s July election, just 2,810 of the 164,296 voters who requested an absentee ballot cited Covid-19 as an excuse. More than 90% of the voters who used mail-in ballots in July, Ardoin noted, were aged 65 or older.
Ardoin’s proposal still needs to be approved by the Louisiana legislature, where Republicans control both chambers, and Louisiana governor John Bel Edwards, is a Democrat.
“The reality is the legislature is majority Republican and I had to craft a plan that could get passed pragmatically and at the same time address the needs I saw,” Ardoin told the USA Today network. “A good number of the Republicans who voted for the last plan said they couldn’t do so again because the circumstances have changed.”