US Polling Places

Published — October 16, 2020

Louisiana expands who can vote by mail this year, but other barriers remain

The state is among the minority requiring a witness signature on ballots, even during the pandemic. But lawmakers did extend voting rights to thousands more people.

Introduction

Louisiana eased its voting-by-mail restrictions, so it’s safer for more residents to cast a ballot during the pandemic. But it took a court order to make that stick.

Some rules that act as barriers to voting, meanwhile, remain in place.

Here’s a look at the most significant updates on restrictions to voting rights and access in the state:

Mail-in voting

Most states let any voter cast an absentee ballot. Louisiana is among the minority that require an excuse. Some of those states added fear of COVID-19 as an allowable reason, but Louisiana did not.

However, residents will be allowed to vote absentee if they have health conditions that increase their risk to COVID-19 complications or if they fall into narrower categories, including testing positive for the virus. The state allowed these excuses in the summer for the state’s presidential primary and a general election for municipal candidates. There was no plan to extend the policy to Louisiana’s November and December elections until a judge ordered it in September.

That’s the (pretty) good news. The bad news: Voters must get a witness to sign their absentee ballot envelope, a step only a handful of states require.

“There was some talk way back in April of removing the witness requirement,” said Caren Short, senior staff attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center. “That, unfortunately, didn’t get too far.”

In-person voting

Unlike its neighbor Mississippi, Louisiana has early voting — it runs Oct. 16 through 27, not including Sundays. Short said she hopes officials are prepared for large numbers of people showing up to the polls during that period, given concerns about mail delivery.

Short didn’t only mean the delivery slowdowns manufactured this year by the Trump administration. She also pointed to the majority Black city of New Orleans, where 4,000 ballot applications for the July primary were held for an unknown amount of time at a post office before they were sent to election officials a week and a half before the election. 

The U.S. Postal Service told WDSU News Channel 6 that the requests didn’t have enough postage, but they should have been delivered anyway.

“People are going to do whatever they can to vote,” Short said. “The parish officials and the state election officials have to shore up all of these avenues to make sure mistakes aren’t made. … We need these officials to prepare to be overloaded.”

Felony enfranchisement

After the Civil War, southern states looked for new ways to disempower Black residents. One common strategy: Stripping voting rights from people convicted of a felony while aggressively arresting Black residents. Louisiana added such felony disenfranchisement in 1898, part of a raft of racist changes specifically intended to “establish the supremacy of the white race.”

In 2018, the legislature made residents eligible to vote once they’ve completed probation and parole or have been out of prison for at least five years. But it’s not automatic. They must bring a form, signed by their parole or probation officer, to their local elections office.

“It’s unfortunately been left to advocates and activists to inform people with felony convictions on how to navigate that process,” Short said. “So that’s been a challenge.” 

Disasters

COVID-19 isn’t the only catastrophe interfering with voting. Hurricane Laura struck Louisiana in late August, displacing tens of thousands of residents, and Hurricane Delta hit the same areas in early October.

Survivors staying in hotels or other lodgings can vote absentee, but their application must be received by 4:30 p.m. on Oct. 30 and the ballot must arrive by 4:30 p.m. the day before Election Day.

Their other option is to drive back to their precinct and vote in person.As climate change fuels disasters like hurricanes and floods, it also complicates elections in ways that can worsen inequality. After 2016 floods devastated East Baton Rouge Parish in Louisiana, polling place changes followed — and they affected a greater share of Black voters than white voters.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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