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Medical personnel talk to a person at a drive-thru coronavirus testing station at West Jefferson Medical Center on March 17, 2020 in New Orleans. (Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

With Louisiana Lagging in Testing Capacity, Top State Election Official Proposes Positive Covid-19 Test as Prerequisite for Voting by Mail

"Many of the state's 2.89 million registered voters will be forced to make an unconscionable choice between voting and maintaining their health and safety," said the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.

Julia Conley, staff writer

Louisiana's top election official is pushing an "unprecedented" proposal to restrict voting in the November general election, suggesting that voters should be required to prove they've recently tested positive for Covid-19 to obtain an absentee ballot, if their reason for choosing not to vote in person is based on concerns over the coronavirus pandemic. 

Undersecretary of State Kyle Ardoin, a Republican, has proposed that Louisiana residents must test positive for Covid-19 between the last day of early voting and Election Day, giving them a weeklong period to get their test results back and present them to election officials.

The restriction, which still needs to be approved by the state's Republican legislature and signed by Democratic Gov. John Bel Edwards, was proposed as residents in Louisiana experience long wait times for results after being tested. 

Last month, the Louisiana Department of Health reported that people could face a wait time of up to 14 days after getting their results. Delays of just one week were seen in some hospitals in Baton Rouge, but under Ardoin's proposal, both wait times could force people to either move ahead with voting in person if they haven't received their results by Election Day or skip voting entirely.

According to a New York Times analysis, Louisiana is currently only meeting 51% of the testing target to mitigate the spread of the virus.

Ardoin's proposal would put a greater burden on voters in a state where "it's already hard to vote and hard to get Covid tested," Guardian voting rights editor Ankita Rao tweeted.

"Thousands" of eligible voters could be excluded from the general election if Ardoin's proposal is adopted, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, which is suing Louisiana over its preparations for the election, told The Guardian on Wednesday.

"Restriction of emergency absentee ballot eligibility exclusively to individuals who test positive for Covid-19 during and after the early voting period but before Election Day is an inexplicably narrow classification," NAACP attorney Zachery Morris told the outlet. 

Louisiana currently only allows "no-excuse" absentee ballots for voters aged 65 and older or people who need to be away from home during the election. The state is one of seven which are requiring an excuse to vote by mail during the coronavirus pandemic. The CDC in June released guidance recommending state and local officials offer alternatives to voting in person to reduce the spread of Covid-19, but voting by mail has come under attack by President Donald Trump and other Republicans who have claimed, without evidence, that the system would invite fraud. The president himself voted by mail in Florida this week.  

While other red states including Kentucky, Arkansas, and Alabama are requiring voters to provide an excuse to vote by mail, officials in those states are accepting concerns over Covid-19 as a valid excuse. 

Earlier this month, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund filed a lawsuit against Louisiana over its voting requirements for the November election. In addition to Ardoin's proposal, the state reduced the early voting period from 13 days in the July and August primaries to seven days in the general election.

"Louisiana currently leads the U.S. in total Covid-19 cases per capita," Morris said in a statement. "Voters and poll workers will be put at risk of infection if officials refuse to expand eligibility for absentee by mail voting and extend the early voting period for the upcoming elections. Many of the state's 2.89 million registered voters will be forced to make an unconscionable choice between voting and maintaining their health and safety, and that of their families and communities. Without safe, accessible voting options, many will be forced to opt out of exercising their right to vote."

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