Louisiana pandemic voting plans at issue in federal court

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FILE - In this Tuesday, Aug. 18, 2020, file photo, a person drops applications for mail-in-ballots into a mail box in Omaha, Neb. U.S. Postal Service warnings that it can’t guarantee ballots sent by mail will arrive on time have put a spotlight on the narrow timeframes most states allow to request and return those ballots. (AP Photo/Nati Harnik, File) Photo credit: Associated Press

NEW ORLEANS (AP) — A federal judge in Louisiana began hearing arguments Tuesday on whether the state must broaden opportunities for mail-in balloting to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in this fall’s elections.

Voting rights advocates and Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards say a plan by the state’s top election official, Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin, doesn’t do enough to protect voters’ health and safety.

Ardoin’s plan calls for a limited expansion of absentee mail voting for those confirmed to have COVID-19. The plan requires approval by the state’s Republican-dominated Legislature and Edwards. Edwards has promised to withhold approval.

Voting rights advocates filed a lawsuit against the plan. And Edwards has asked that U.S. District Judge Shelly Dick in Baton Rouge to order a broader use of mail balloting.

Dick opened a two-day hearing Tuesday morning, with attorneys participating online and the news media and public able to listen by phone.

Louisiana’s usual 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 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.

Ardoin, lawmakers and Edwards approved a more expansive plan for elections that took place this summer. That 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.

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

Ardoin has said he could not get Republican lawmakers’ support for such a plan for the upcoming elections. Voting rights advocates asked the judge Tuesday to order that the summer plan be used.

It’s not clear when Dick will rule.