If you ask Secretary of State Kyle Ardoin what his office is working on, you’ll likely get a different answer depending on the time of day. In addition to recent COVID-19 cases that temporarily cut down his workforce, Ardoin and his team are managing a delayed fall election, reworking precincts damaged by Hurricane Ida and overseeing a controversial purchasing process for voting machines.
The state office has become a hotbed of hard news over the past couple of years, and the trend is unlikely to lessen. On the horizon, Ardoin is planning an aggressive agenda for the 2022 regular session, including pushing some issues that were parts of bills vetoed by Gov. John Bel Edwards.
During an interview last week in Baton Rouge, Ardoin said the time had arrived to give more thought to the relationship between Louisiana’s elections and hurricanes. With a seemingly never-ending stream of storms coming in from the Gulf of Mexico, does Louisiana have to hold elections during the fall in nonpresidential election years?
“I think that’s something we should at least begin to discuss,” Ardoin said. “The last two years, it has seemed like we’re facing growing challenges. At the very least, I think there are some things we can do with the emergency procedures. For example, we should look at the ability to bring more than one emergency election plan to the Legislature for discussion. The timeline for approval is another area worth reviewing. There’s also some more authority that can be given for making emergency decisions.”
Ardoin got an earful from local election officials over the past few weeks about their own needs, which is partly fueling his office’s policy strategy. He has toured all of the areas affected by Hurricane Ida and his office is already working to merge precincts and prepare tents and other supplies ahead of the Nov. 13 primary.
A community center is being used in LaPlace and there are significant changes in lower Lafourche Parish, he said. Ardoin’s team was supposed to be done with its assessment by last week, but the secretary said Terrebonne Parish requested more time to investigate its own needs.
“Some local officials like the idea of a mega-precinct and find that they work better,” Ardoin said. “That’s more of a long-term conversation, and not something likely to become permanent in the near term. But it does show how this process is providing opportunities to assess how we do our jobs.”
Hurricane Ida also derailed the inaugural meeting of the Louisiana Voting System Commission, which was slated to gather Sept. 1. The commission was created by the Legislature to help Ardoin’s office draft a request for proposal, or RFP, to replace the state’s 30-year-old voting machines.
The RFP process has created friction in some conservative circles, especially among advocates who share concerns about the validity of the last presidential election. Put another way, distrust of technology and government created unexpected hurdles for the RFP. In response, the commission was formed to award a contract for new voting machines that could be worth as much as $100 million over 10 years.
Ardoin said he is working to get the commission back on track and meeting this month. From there, the road forward will be long and arduous. “We’re probably a good two years away from being finished with this,” the secretary said.
In the meantime, Ardoin’s office is working on a handful of bills for the regular session that convenes March 14, 2022. That agenda will include policy issues that were covered in three bills from this year’s regular session that were ultimately vetoed by the governor:
- HB138 by Rep. Les Farnum, R-Sulphur, would have required registrars to conduct a second annual canvass of all voters, with purging as needed.
- SB63 by Sen. Robert Mills, R-Minden, would have allowed a voter to hand deliver an absentee ballot to certain election locales.
- SB20 by Sen. Sharon Hewitt, R-Covington, would have created a commission to help draft emergency election plans that would then be reviewed by the Legislature, lessening the governor’s influence in the process.
“There may be some changes here and there,” Ardoin said, “but these are the concepts we’re working on right now.”
Fortunately, Ardoin has another 160 days or so to work on the bills, which may indeed require adjustments to make it through the legislative process.
Unfortunately, the timeline is much shorter for other items on the secretary’s desk. The delayed election, for example, is roughly 40 days away, with early voting starting in just a few weeks. Plus, the first meeting of the Louisiana Voting System Commission will be announced any day now.
Ardoin and his team would certainly accept some more time to focus on their shared mission, but time is in short supply these days. Attention, however, is something they’ll get plenty of in the coming weeks.