COLUMN: With slight expansion of absentee balloting, Louisiana will test pandemic voting on low turnout primaries

Illustration by Peter DeHart

It’s easy to forget that before the world seemingly stopped in mid-March, we were entering the heart of an exciting election season. Louisiana was the first state to announce the postponement of a presidential primary election, with 14 other states quickly following. Some, like Wisconsin, decided to carry on with the election as scheduled. Since then, 52 people who reported voting in that election have tested positive for COVID-19. An American truism is that people have died for the right to vote, but no one expected to test their commitment to democracy in quite this way.

Under quarantine, states have scrambled to figure out a path forward for the delayed primaries and, more confounding, the possibility of holding a presidential election in November amid a second wave of the virus. Louisiana’s Legislature passed an emergency election plan on April 27 to make accommodations for the primary, now scheduled for July 11. Initially, Republican Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin supported a proposal that would have significantly expanded the reasons for which a person could request an absentee ballot, including anyone concerned about the COVID-19 virus. After pushback from Republican members of the Legislature, a compromise proposal passed with drastically scaled-back options for absentee voting, with the endorsement of Gov. Edwards. Under this plan, Louisiana voters can request an absentee ballot if they are at high-risk medically, subject to medically necessary quarantine, sick and awaiting diagnosis, or caretaking for someone who’s sick. 

In addition to these limited expansions in absentee ballot eligibility, the election plan also expands early voting from seven to 13 days, June 20 – July 4, excluding Sundays. In a typical presidential primary election, Louisiana would see approximately 25-30% of voters participate. In the 2016 presidential primary, 27,842 Lafayette voters participated, with 2,497 early voting in person. With closed primaries, only those registered with a party before the election date can participate. Given that the presidential candidate selection has already narrowed to a Trump vs. Biden contest, fewer voters will be motivated to cast ballots in a sewn-up election. 

In Lafayette Parish, party members will also have the opportunity to cast votes for members of the Democratic and Republican Party executive committees. The RPEC elections have drawn particular attention. A slate of moderate candidates are vying for leadership positions, though Mayor-President Guillory has described them to The Advocate as “liberal Democrats running as Republicans.” With likely depressed turnout, the executive leadership will be determined by the party die-hards, even more than usual. 

Louisiana’s emergency election plan only applies to the July and August elections, though it could serve, if needed, as a foundation for an emergency plan for the November presidential election. Louisiana has enjoyed consistently high participation in presidential elections, with just over 2 million voters participating in 2016. In Lafayette Parish, 106,509 voters participated, with 16,487 early voting in person. That was the most demand Lafayette had seen for early voting, which entailed long lines on an enclosed stairwell to reach the office of the registrar of voters on the third floor of the parish government building. Even with expanding the number of days for early voting, if social distancing needs to continue, it makes the current early voting location particularly problematic. Discussions were already underway earlier this year about the potential for additional early voting sites, a conversation that will continue in Lafayette and parishes across the state. 

Whether Louisiana would reconsider expanding mail-ballot options remains uncertain. Currently, 34 states offer “no-excuse” absentee ballots, where anyone may request an absentee ballot without having to specify a reason. In Louisiana, absentee ballots have previously been limited to those who would be out of their parish on election day, are 65 or older, are students, have an illness or disability, or are incarcerated. 

In the state Legislature, Republican opposition to the expansion of mail-ballot options focused primarily on the increased possibility for fraud. However, election studies of voter fraud have found very few cases associated with mail-ballots. Even in explaining the emergency election plan to the House and Governmental Affairs Committee on April 20, Secretary Ardoin stressed that cases of fraud from absentee voting are virtually non-existent: “We’ve been having absentee balloting for over 20 years in this state. We’re one of the leaders in the nation on this. And there has been very limited if any real circumstances of total fraud in the system.”

Nationally, the debate over mail-ballots is heating up. President Trump has decried mail voting as fraught with cheating. Yet, Republican campaign strategists on the ground are pushing for absentee ballots to help engage voters who might otherwise stay home for fear of the virus. But even for advocates of large scale absentee voting, sudden transitions to primarily mail voting can strain election systems. Ohio’s recent primary election is a case in point. After delaying the election by six weeks and expanding mail voting options, thousands of ballots were delayed by sluggish mail delivery. 

Many states with longer-established mail voting programs offer secured drop-off stations for mail ballots to alleviate some of the mail congestion. States must also manage increasing costs for printing and postage and delays in counting election returns. Bypassing the mail system altogether, West Virginia is expanding its electronic voting app program, first used in the 2018 midterms by West Virginians in the military and overseas voters. This year disabled voters will also be able to vote via the app. 

Given that elections are being pushed into uncharted territory nationwide, Louisiana has the opportunity to pilot its new emergency plan in a relatively low turnout election. Come November, our ballot will be jam-packed with the presidential election, U.S. House races, and state constitutional amendments, including a proposed amendment to ban abortion in the state. In Lafayette, we’ll vote for district attorney, a slate of judicial seats, city marshal and rededication of the CREATE funds, among other items. In a normal year, turnout would be high, and it still could be. Though partisan rancor surrounds discussion of how to hold elections safely, it is also an opportunity to reevaluate our election processes and look for opportunities to innovate.