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The Journal Gazette

  • Attorney General Curtis Hill, left, and Secretary of State Connie Lawson.

Friday, August 10, 2018 1:00 am

State feud arises over voting deal

AG, secretary of state spar over suit in Marion County

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – A dispute over satellite voting in Marion County has escalated into a clash between two Republican state office holders, Attorney General Curtis Hill and Secretary of State Connie Lawson.

The feud went public Wednesday in press statements and was followed by a news conference with the attorney general's staff Thursday morning. A federal judge rebuffed Hill's latest court filing late Thursday.

At issue is his involvement in a federal lawsuit in which Common Cause Indiana and the Indianapolis NAACP are pushing the Marion County Election Board to add early voting sites around the county.

Hill initially represented Lawson as a named defendant, but she was later dismissed from the suit. But Hill sought and received permission from the federal judge to challenge or appeal any settlement agreement that he finds “contrary to the public interest” or violates state law.

U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker in April found that political motivations were blocking satellite voting in the liberal-leaning county and ordered that at least two sites be added for the November election. Hill did not appeal that ruling.

An agreement known as a consent decree between the parties was filed July 3 outlining additional early voting sites and was accepted by the judge July 10.

At the same time, Hill was asked to resign by Gov. Eric Holcomb and legislative leaders following groping allegations at a downtown bar. Lawson also sought Hill's resignation.

Hill's staff waited until Tuesday to file an objection to the agreement on the early voting lawsuit, and Lawson didn't appreciate it.

“As Indiana's chief election officer, I oppose Attorney General Hill's intervention in the Marion County satellite voting case. I did not ask him to do this. He did not have the professional courtesy to provide me notice of his motion, even though I am named as a party in the suit,” she said.

“I support Marion County's unanimous decision to adopt satellite voting. I urge Attorney General Hill to drop this.”

She called Hill's maneuver reckless and said he has disrupted more than 18 months of productive, bipartisan conversations.

But Hill fired back, saying he had no reason to notify Lawson because she was no longer part of the case and calling her ill-informed.

On its objection to the settlement, Hill's office said state law requires a unanimous vote of the election board to open satellite sites – not just a majority.

A unanimous decision is required to ensure that it is bipartisan.

But the consent decree was approved unanimously by the board in an open meeting, and the board also unanimously approved a resolution establishing six sites – even above the judicial order and agreement.

“As it happens, the Secretary of State does not enforce the statute at issue,” Hill said in a statement. “There is nothing 'reckless' about an attorney general intervening in federal court on behalf of the state – my client – to defend the proper operation of state laws. That is the attorney general's job.”

On Thursday, Solicitor General Thomas Fisher said little about the issue of the board's unanimous votes in the case and instead focused on the fact that the consent decree would be permanent, while state law limits early voting resolutions to each calendar year so future boards can decide whether to continue.

“If the consent decree violates state law, that's a problem,” he said.

Barker denied Hill's latest request late Thursday, saying that Hill had not presented a cogent objection but instead an “expression of a preference by the Attorney General for federal noninterference in voting rights cases generally.

“The State's lawyers may entertain what preferences they will, but violations of federal rights justify the imposition of federal remedies. If conditions change such that the remedies agreed to and ordered in this case are no longer justified, the consent decree may be modified or vacated,” the judge wrote.

Fisher would not answer a direct yes-or-no question on whether his office gave the secretary of state the professional courtesy of letting her know he was filing an objection.

“The Attorney General's ultimate client is the people of the state of Indiana,” he said.

nkelly@jg.net