When COVID-19 prompted indefinite suspension of Louisiana’s 2020 legislative session after just one week, I must admit I felt an idiosyncratic frisson of hope. As terrifying and deadly as the global pandemic is, as a longtime Louisiana politics reporter, I found a source of optimism in the fact that this new group of lawmakers would now have some time to ponder their place in humanity and the fragility of life, before returning to their lawmaking duties. After all, the people and politicians of this state have extensive history and experience dealing with disasters in benevolent ways, and maybe – just maybe– the body politic would return to working together for the greater good, rather than entangling themselves in party zealotry.
Unfortunately, the hoped-for altruism has yet to completely manifest, as became abundantly obvious during attempts to gain legislative committee approvals of an emergency plan for conducting spring elections, now pushed back to summer by the needs for social distancing to minimize coronavirus infections. Complicating the discussions are two crucial facts. The election pushed back from April 4 to July 11 is the Democratic Party presidential preference primary.
As Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin frankly admitted to the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee during the April 15th hearing, “We talked about once Senator Sanders withdrew, did we even need to have the Presidential preference primary? Yes, because the parties have to determine how delegates will be allocated, and they can’t be allocated if there’s not been any expressed will of the people in the state, whether by caucus or election.”
In addition, the committees vetting the emergency election plans are Republican chaired, with a majority of Republican members, and a fair proportion of those presenting themselves as far right ideologues.
As a result, the plan to expand the allowable reasons for absentee balloting (vote-by mail) for the presidential preference primary now rescheduled to July 11 and the municipal elections reset from May to August 15. has been altered to narrow eligibility.
Not that Louisiana has ever allowed much in the way of mail-in balloting. As Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin told the Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee on April 15, “the maximum percentage of absentee ballots Louisiana has ever had was 3.7%.”
Ardoin assured the Senate’s and House’s Governmental Affairs committees, when he met with them sequentially on Wednesday, April 22, there wouldn’t be an explosion in the percentage of mail-in votes.
“The plan went from eight excuses for COVID, down to five,” the Secretary of State said.
The original version of the plan, which Ardoin had worked out in consultation with the Governor’s office and presented to each of the committees the week prior, had allowed those 60 or older, those without available childcare, and those who feared imminent infection with the virus. That last reason – especially – greatly perturbed Sen. Barry Milligan.
“The heartburn I have is related to simply the expansion of the absentee ballots,” the Shreveport Republican said during the April 15 meeting of the Senate and Governmental Affairs committee. “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. There is not an election cycle that we go through that we don’t wake up to the news that votes are found in somebody’s garage or trunk. “
“Outside of this state, right?” Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin asked, with a laugh.
Milligan, a freshman lawmaker, but the vice-chair of the committee, was unamused.
“I’m hoping that’s the case,” he responded, with a deadpan expression. “It seems like we’re looking at a situation where any reason to expand absentee ballots should require more of a trigger mechanism than this. Those folks who are hospitalized, those folks who are diagnosed and have been asked to stay home, those folks can provide legitimate documentation and furnish that for their absentee ballot, they can prove that situation exists, versus basically saying we want to give everybody the right.” Then he added, “I’m really worried for the risk for our voting, for the sanctity of our elections.”
Did you catch the coded words and phrases? Legitimate documentation. Prove rather than give everybody the right. And then following it up with saying he’s worried...for the sanctity of our elections.
Implying rampant and intentional fraud by voters to block expanding ballot access, all while standing on the patriotic and moral ground of “election sanctity,” is the new and improved form of voter suppression strategy that goes back to the Jim Crow era and beyond. The literacy tests and poll taxes of old have morphed to present day requirements for showing government-issued ID and – in this time of coronavirus – a push for requiring a doctor’s note to prove you are, or are suspected of, being COVID positive.
Milligan’s concerns were seconded by the committee chairwoman, Sen. Sharon Hewitt (R-Slidell), and led to the April 15th rejection of the election plan by the Senate and Governmental Affairs committee.
Based on Secretary of State Ardoin’s presentations to the committees this week, we know a bit about what transpired in between.
“I want to speak complimentary words and kind notes about our Speaker, Chairman Dwight, the Senate President, Committee Chairwoman Hewitt and the Attorney General for what is truly a bi-partisan plan. Monday, after three hours, we worked out a plan that we believe fits the needs of our state. It’s not a perfect plan,” Ardoin said, “But we have come together, and should be proud that we can work this out and not fight it out in the courts.”
The Senate committee gave the new plan a unanimous nod. House committee members were less enamored.
“Did you remove the requirement to provide a doctor’s order?,” Rep. Dodie Horton (R-Haughton) wanted to know. “I am concerned that they will not have to prove they have it.”
Ardoin replied, “The new proposed application requires they attest that they qualify for absentee voting, and acknowledge they are subject to $2000 fine and up to two years in jail if their statement is proven to be false.”
From the other side of the aisle, the vice chairman of the House and Governmental Affairs committee had some pointed questions for the Secretary of State.
“We’re here again this week because, as you have said, we need a plan that addresses the two concerns of fraud and health,” Rep. Royce Duplessis (D-New Orleans) began. “Last week, you said the plan was bipartisan and would protect health?”
“Well, it probably wasn’t bipartisan enough,” Ardoin said. “Senate committee members felt they had not had sufficient opportunity for input, and so in the last week we have been working on it with leaders in this legislature and the Attorney General.”
“Interesting,” Duplessis remarked. “I didn’t get anything about it until noon yesterday. You mentioned the Attorney General: why is he involved?”
“He is the one who will have to defend the plan if we are sued over it, and he says this is perfectly defensible.,” the Secretary of State answered.
“So this version of the plan was developed to be lawsuit-proof. What have you done to make it health-proof?” Duplessis asked. “Did you consult with the Louisiana Department of Health?”
“No,” Ardoin said. “But it is centered around the CDC guidance on who is at greatest risk.”
“Yet this plan went from eight categories eligible for absentee ballots to five categories. Hypertension is not on list, yet 56% of deaths are known to be in conjunction with high blood pressure,” Duplessis commented, obliquely challenging the assertion. “Also, it’s been suggested that voters might need a doctor’s note? Does that mean they would be required to pay for a doctor visit in order to get that?”
(Wait a minute. Couldn’t that be viewed as a form of poll tax?)
“I see applicants for absentee ballots are required to say who they’re caregiving for, and what they have that makes them a risk under CDC guidelines. How does that fit with HIPAA?” Duplessis wondered. “Who is going to be seeing this info?”
“Registrars will be seeing it,” Ardoin replied.
“So it’s public record?” Duplessis asked.
“It’ll be redacted,” Ardoin said.
Freshman Rep. Rodney Schamerhorn, a Republican from the town of Hornbeck near Ft. Polk, had his own set of reasons for opposing the emergency election plan.
“I appreciate all the work you’ve done, but I don’t believe the system is broke,” Schamerhorn said. “People in my district, my constituents in Vernon, Sabine and Natchitoches parishes, think this is going to go away and take care of itself. This is just scaring the public.”
“I understand some areas of the state are not as concerned about the virus, but other areas of the state are extremely concerned,” the Secretary of State replied. “You represent your area, but I would hope you would support this for the greater good of all.”
At the invitation of House and Governmental Affairs Committee chairman Stephen Dwight (R-Lake Charles), Secretary of State Ardoin then gave a lengthy – and ultimately tearful – speech as a final urging for the House committee’s favorable vote on the emergency plan.
Here is a transcription [with parenthetical commentary from me] of the speech, in its entirety.
“I realize this is not an easy time for any of us. This is certainly not anything I believed I would be facing as your elected Secretary of State, when I ran, or when I took the oath of office at the beginning of this year.
“From the very founding of our country, our greatest leaders have reminded us that our government is one ‘of the people.’ In the Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘Governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.’ George Washington said, ‘The basis of our political system is the right of the people to make and to alter their constitutions of government.’ And some of the greatest debates at the Constitutional Convention concerned the best way for the voice of the American people to be represented.
“The American experiment is tied to the idea that the people rule.”
[While George Washington stated, “The establishment of our new Government seemed to be the last great experiment for promoting human happiness,” right-wing groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Federalist Society have co-opted the term “the American experiment,” and now it’s part of the conservatives’ loaded language code.]
“We can look back at our history and see that there were those always fighting to make sure everyone had their voices heard. People like Frederick Douglass, a former slave who escaped to freedom, who spent his entire life fighting for freedom and equal rights for all, arguing that all men and women deserve the right to vote and to share in the American experiment. People like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, who fought for women’s suffrage for more than 70 years before the 19th Amendment was ratified.
“The American experiment is purchased with the blood of its patriots. From Bunker Hill to Gettysburg, to Normandy, to anywhere they are called, the brave men and women of our Armed Forces, throughout our history have insured our continued freedom, while spreading freedom and the right of self-governance to others around the world.
“Recently, the people of Hong Kong, suffering under an increasingly tyrannical China, took to their streets to protest while flying American flags and singing the Star Spangled Banner.”
[Not exactly. The flag-waving and singing was part of a November 28, 2019, demonstration celebrating President Trump signing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would seek to ensure that Hong Kong has sufficient autonomy from China to maintain favorable trading terms with the United States. In other words, it’s a promise to try and keep our favorable trade going with Hong Kong, even though Trump has been waving his sword at the dragon of China.]
“For millions around the world, the Stars and Stripes represent the right of the people to have a say in their government – thanks to the sacrifice of those who have served under our banner.
“The American experiment is entrusted to each and every one of us. We are the heirs of a promise made in the words, ‘we the people.’ It is the responsibility and the right of all of us to make our voice heard at every level of government.
“And for those of us in this room, we hold the great responsibility of being the representatives to the great citizens of our great state. They entrust us to ensure they can vote safely and fairly – a duty not to be taken lightly. They entrust us to hold honest and accountable and accessible elections, even in difficult times like we face today. Let us not skirt our responsibility, but rather work together to make good on the promise made over 200 years ago – a promise of ‘a government of, by, and for the people.’
[Ardoin starts getting choked up a bit here.] “I ask you: Stand tall. Be the leaders. And vote for this plan – this temporary plan to provide the access under the circumstances we never foresaw. And I’m asking you – I know this is a difficult vote. I know your phones have been ringing off the hook. I know your emails have been blowing up. I know your text messages have been blowing up. But the fact of the matter comes down to we must lead. It’s a temporary plan. It is not a permanent solution. We’ll leave that for the months ahead. But rest assured, you could go home and you can tell your constituents, ‘I stood up for the entire state, for the right thing, to move our state forward.’ To do the right thing takes a lot of hard work, [swallows his tears manfully here] and a lot of effort, and a lot of guts.
“Monday, after three hours, we worked out a plan that we believe fits the needs of our state. It’s not a perfect plan. I’ve never seen a piece of perfect legislation pass out of either of the two bodies. But that’s why we’re a democracy, because we keep working at it. We look back and we see what may have been the worst, and we work to make it better. And those things that we do great, we continue working hard to be great at it.
[Fighting the tears now, Ardoin is becoming more emotional] “It would have been easy for me – easy, for me – to have just said no. To do what my colleague in Florida had to do, to do what Wisconsin had to do on the spur of the moment, to create mega-precincts because they had no workers. Think about it, as an elected official, in charge of elections, I don’t want to be part of a system where people have to wait four hours to exercise their right to vote. Or to put themselves in harm’s way because we didn’t have enough PPE.
“I’m being torn up on radio, in emails; praised by the liberal press which doesn’t help my conservative credentials, because I’m leading. I was elected to lead. And I took an oath, under God, to do the best that I could possibly do, to the best of my understanding and ability.
[Clearly crying, wiping his eyes and ducking his head] “I have watched my staff work for hours and hours and hours, plan after plan after plan to deliver democracy to the voters of Louisiana. It takes true dedication to do that, because the pay is not great.
“We need your help. We need your leadership. And it may not be popular. We weren’t sent here to be popular. We were sent here to lead.
“I’m asking you to take this vote today. Vote yes. Be the leader. And together we stand, and we speak out, and we tell the people of Louisiana, this isn’t the best plan. But it’s the best we have today, and we’ll get better tomorrow. God bless you. God bless our great state.”
Ardoin’s impassioned speech got the emergency voting plan passed by the House committee, with 11 members voting yea. It wasn’t enough to sway them all, however. Five representatives – Foy Gadberry (R-West Monroe), Valarie Hodges (R-Denham Springs), Dodie Horton (R-Haughton), Mike Johnson (R-Pineville), and Rodney Schamerhorn (R-Hornbeck) – voted against the plan.
The next steps for the plan point out the absolute sophistry in the majority of the arguments that have been used to stall and negate and narrow the parameters for expanding mail-in balloting in view of the COVID pandemic. You see, all the members of the House and Senate will be voting on the plan by 5 p.m. on Monday, April 27 – via email ballots.