By: Nicholas Brookings
When one thinks of changes to elections, the most common things that come to mind are voting by mail, changes to identification requirements and election locations, and so on. What one does not think about as often are changes to the actual day the election takes place, and yet that change, albeit temporary, has taken place in Louisiana for the 2021 election. This is due to Hurricane Ida, and the massive damage it caused. Indeed, the secretary of state, Kyle Ardoin, stated that 42% of Louisiana voters were impacted by the storm. Power is still out in some effected areas, and some voting locations are still damaged. As a result, the state decided to postpone the elections, moving everything back around a month, with the October 9th elections occurring on November 13th. The run-offs, which were scheduled for November 13th, are now to be held on December 11th. The governor did this through LA R.S. 18:401.1, the election emergency statute for Louisiana.
This statute authorizes the state to postpone elections in the instance of “an emergency or common disaster occurring before or during a regularly scheduled or special election….” These delayed elections are then rescheduled “as soon thereafter as is practicable.” The method for enacting this massive alteration to an election is actually rather simple, and the entire process is handled in one three sentence paragraph in the act. The state governor first releases an executive order declaring an active or impending state of emergency, after which the secretary of state certifies that the declared state of emergency really exists. After the secretary of state has certified the state of emergency, the elections may be suspended. Local clerks of court operating as chief election officers in any Louisiana parish, may notify the secretary of state of any difficulties in their parish caused by natural disasters.
It is this language specifying natural disasters, which is only mentioned once in the statute, which provides the legislative intent necessary to determine why this statute was passed. Louisiana is infamous for often being directly in the path of many major hurricanes, Hurricane Katrina being one of the most infamous. Such hurricanes often cause massive damage, as anyone who saw photos of New Orleans after Katrina can attest to. Indeed, the last time this act was used was after Hurricane Ike in 2008, although it was also used after Katrina. The back to back storms of Katrina and Rita were also the last time this act was used to alter an election, with Louisiana voting occurring in Texas and the election postponement lasting for over a month. In the aftermath of such storms, holding an orderly election obviously becomes impossible, and reconstruction becomes significantly more important. Thus, this act is a vital one for such a coastal state, which is so often a target for hurricanes.
It is interesting to note that this act was not used for COVID-19 related election delays, which furthers it usage as a post-hurricane statute. Instead, Louisiana used broad powers established under LA R.S. 29:766, which, while covering any “public health emergency,” was clearly amended in the wake of the first wave of COVID-19, and indeed was signed into law in August, 2020. This is understandable based on the very different languages of the statutes. 29:766 is a massively extensive bill which gives the governor and state government significant power, but only in the wake of a public health emergency. 18:401.1, on the other hand, is solely designed for delaying elections due to an emergency, which can effectively be read as a large hurricane. As such the two bills can largely exist together due to their very different purposes.