by C.C. Campbell-Rock for The New Orleans Tribune

In response to COVID-19 Louisiana’s presidential primary and general elections have been set back for a second time. The presidential preference primary is rescheduled for July 11. Local general elections have been reset for August 15. 

And in the middle of the deadly corona virus pandemic that has killed more than 1,200 Louisianans, has resulted in more than 23,000 COVID-19 cases and has impacted the lives of every resident in the state with mandatory stay-at-home orders, business and school closures, historic unemployment rates, along with good measures of uncertainty and fear, Republicans on the state Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee on April 15 killed Gov. John Bel Edwards and Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin’s bipartisan proposal to expand voting hours and mail-in ballot options for upcoming elections.

They are clearly following Trump’s order to resist efforts to make voting easier during this life-threatening emergency. 

In a tweet on April 8, President Trump wrote, “Republicans should fight very hard when it comes to statewide mail-in voting. Democrats are clamoring for it,” Trump tweeted. “Tremendous potential for voter fraud, and for whatever reason, doesn’t work out well for Republicans.”

The Senate & Governmental Affairs Committee is comprised of six Republicans and three Democrats. State Sen. Ed Price of Gonzales was the only Democrat to attend the hearing, casting the only vote in support of the measure. Democrat Senator Jimmy Harris, a committee member from New Orleans, could not be reached for comment.

In Louisiana, you must provide a reason to be eligible to vote by mail, unless you are a military or overseas voter. In rejecting the plan on April 15, in a 5-1 vote, Republican legislators will force Louisiana voters to risk their lives to vote as many remain concerned about the spread of contracting. While hospitalizations and the number of patients on ventilators statewide as a result of the disease have decreased in recent days, the total number of cases and deaths continue to rise. And while the region that includes Orleans and Jefferson Parish may be at the beginning of the curve flattening that leaders are hoping for, other regions of the state have likely not yet hit their peaks.

“We are disappointed that the senate committee, unlike their counterparts on the House & Governmental Affairs Committee, couldn’t even agree that we are in an emergency situation,” said Ashley Shelton, executive director of the Power Coalition for Equity and Justice (PCEJ). Given what we’re seeing in our state and around the world, we thought the Secretary’s plan was pretty common-sense, and it reflected many of the demands we laid out in the Roadmap to Recovery that we released earlier this week.”

The organization presented a 16-point safe voting plan, some of which were included in Ardoin’s plan.

Peter Robin-Brown, PCEJ’s communication director, called the vote “disheartening”.

‘It shouldn’t be an issue. It’s hard to ignore the racial element, explicit or implicit,” said Robin-Brown, citing the disparate impact of the corona virus outbreak on Louisiana’s Black and Latino communities. “There seems to be an implicit statement that a certain part of the population is expendable.”

Meanwhile, state senate Republicans are echoing the same debunked conspiracy theories about voter fraud that Trump constantly spews. 

According to media reports, state Sen. Barry Milligan, a Shreveport Republican who casted on the five votes that killed the measure in committee, said “The heartburn that I have is related to simply the expansion of the absentee ballots. It is extremely broad and basically covers everybody in Louisiana. So, anybody could say, ‘Hey, I’m scared to death,’ and they could absentee vote . . . we are opening ourselves to more risk and fraud than ever.”

But voting rights advocates say concerns over fraud are unfounded and believe that mail ballots are critical for safe elections as the state continues to deal with and rebound from the COVID-19 crisis. And even the state’s top election official seems to agree.

“This is a necessary, balanced and, most importantly, a temporary — and I stress temporary — approach in response to this crisis,” Ardoin, a Republican, told reporters in reference to the plan.  “This decision was done without the political ramifications in mind. The only thing on my mind has been the safety of Louisiana and the integrity of our elections. Our plan maintains both.”

To Expand and Preserve

While there is a push to expand the mail-in ballot option, others are cautioning that some state’s efforts to increase vote-by-mail opportunities have been coupled with reducing or eliminating in-person voting. A recent joint publication from the Center for American Progress and the NAACP shows that in-person voting options are still critical for millions of Americans.

The CAP-NAACP analysis documents how eliminating or reducing in-person options would inadvertently disenfranchise many African American voters, voters with disabilities, American Indian and Alaska Native voters, and those who rely on same-day voter registration.

“Our vote is our voice, so it is essential that states take common sense steps to protect Americans’ right to vote and protect their health,” said Rep. Terri Sewell (D-AL) and co-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Voting Rights Task Force. “States that do not have vote by mail and no-excuse absentee voting should begin implementing those programs now. Vote by mail is especially important during times when Americans could be deterred from the polls for health reasons; but it is a good practice, and one that will serve us well, even after this crisis has passed. At the same time, states must take steps to ensure that our polling locations remain open and safe for voters, including by instituting in-person early voting and recruiting poll workers who are the least susceptible to the virus. Thank you to the Center for American Progress and the NAACP for shining a light on this critically important issue.”

The CAP-APP analysis shows:

• Black Americans are disproportionately disadvantaged by vote by mail, given that they have higher move and homeless rates and are some of the least likely Americans to use vote-by-mail options.

• Some voters with disabilities require in-person accommodations.

• People living on tribal lands may not have access to reliable postal service.

• In-person voting options are necessary for voters using same-day voter registration.

The Struggle Continues

Not everyone is convinced, however, that there is any genuine concern for safe and accessible elections — at least not here in Louisiana.

“I don’t trust Ardoin,” says Carl Galmon, a civil rights activist who has been sounding the alarm about a lack of polling places in Pontchartrain Park, a historically Black neighborhood in the Gentilly area, as well as the state’s overseeing of early voting in New Orleans, and efforts to purge voter rolls. “Trusting Ardoin is like trusting Dracula to watch a blood bank.”

Galmon said the state has closed 100 polling sites in Louisiana since 2013 when the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the Voting Rights Act.

“Moving polling sites is a slick way to shave votes,” Galmon explains. “Some people have to travel five miles to vote.”

Galmon also questions whether the state has cybersecurity measures in place to protect ballots. Louisiana votes on paperless machines that experts say are more at risk of cyberattacks and other issues than newer machines with paper backups.

Galmon also sites concerns over voter purging.

“Ardoin wanted to purge the rolls right before the gubernatorial election in 2019,” says Galmon. “I wrote Ardoin a certified letter and told him there would be a picket line outside of his office if he did.”

The Brennan Center for Justice reported that at least 17 million voters were purged nationwide between 2016 and 2018, like the numbers discovered between 2014 and 2016. According to reports, Louisiana’s last voter purge was in 2017, a routine post-election clean-up that resulted in 55,000 names removed from an inactive voter list of more than 100,000.

Louisianans can check the status of their voter registration, register to vote or make an address change on the Louisiana Secretary of State website at www.geauxvote.com.

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