Allen County officials will discuss the pros and cons of making major changes in oversight of county voter registration and records in a meeting today, and local voters concerned about oversight – and efficient government – have good reason to care about what they do.
Under a 2011 law, the three Allen County commissioners have authority to dissolve the two-member Board of Voter Registration and hand those duties over to the county clerk, now Lisa Borgmann. And the clerk could, in turn, pass those duties over to the three-member board of elections, of which the clerk is a member.
Here are answers to key questions about possible changes:
Q. What does the voter registration office do?
A. Register voters and keep accurate records, including address changes and assigning each voter to a precinct. Office workers also verify whether signatures in government-regulated petitions are those of registered voters.
Q. Do all Indiana counties have a voter registration office?
A. No, only 18 of the largest counties do. In the remaining 74, the county clerk handles the duties.
By state law, Marion County (Indianapolis) and Tippecanoe County (Lafayette) have combined election board and voter registration offices.
Q. Why are the commissioners considering the change?
A. The General Assembly enacted a law last year allowing counties to dissolve the voter registration board. Considering that Allen County has both a voter registration office and Election Board office, merging the two offices could well be more efficient and save taxpayers money.
Q. Any other downside to having the separate voter registration board?
A. In some ways, the voter board is a vestige of pure patronage government jobs – one is a full-time, paid Democrat, the other a full-time, paid Republican, each appointed by the county chair of the political party. As with elected officials, their work ethic can vary depending on their own initiative and standards. Unlike elected officials, they do not have to stand for re-election.
Q. Then why keep the voter registration board?
A. For many years in Indiana, registering and voting was a matter of routine. But more recently, registration and voting has become much more partisan, with the political parties seeking to gain advantage wherever possible. Inaccurate, outdated voter registrations have become an issue; so have efforts to keep legitimately registered voters from casting ballots. Ensuring that each party is equally represented in voter registration is desirable to help protect against disenfranchisement.
Q. But isn’t the election board bipartisan?
A. Yes and no. In each Indiana county, the election board consists of the elected county clerk as well as a Democrat and a Republican, each appointed by their respective party chair. Allen County’s clerk has been a Republican for generations and, unless there is a major shift in county politics, will remain so. That gives Republicans a lock on the board.
The county is fortunate to have in Borgmann a dedicated public servant who has not demonstrated partisanship in decisions, and for the most part, neither have the party appointees. But an exception occurred in 2007 (none of the current election board members served then) when the board voted 2-1 strictly on party lines that Republican Matt Kelty had not violated campaign finance laws, a decision later repudiated by a grand jury and ultimate conviction. The major issue is that in the future, more partisan members could decide any matter of voter registration on a 2-1 vote.
Q. What happens next?
A. The commissioners would have to vote unanimously to transfer the duties of the voter registration board to the county clerk. If the clerk wanted then to transfer those responsibilities to the election office, the election board would have to agree unanimously. Today’s meeting will include the commissioners, election board and registration board members, but the commissioners are not expected to vote today.
Q. Why is the issue surfacing now?
A. The commissioners brought it up a year ago, 2 1/2 months before the municipal elections, but deferred to Democratic election board member Andy Boxberger, who asked that the issue not be decided until after the 2012 presidential election.
Q. What should the commissioners do?
A. They were right a year ago to delay any decision until after the major 2012 election. Any merger of the election board and voter registration would best take place in an off-year such as 2013. But the impetus is on those wanting change to justify how a combined office would better serve voters while retaining true bipartisan oversight.