INDIANAPOLIS – Earlier this year Indiana lawmakers narrowed the window to get a write-in absentee ballot starting with the November election.
To some, it was a minor change that helps clerks deal with lagging mail delivery. But to others it was another example of Indiana making it harder – not easier – for voters to cast a ballot.
A recent study by Northern Illinois University ranked Indiana fourth worst in the nation in its “Cost of Voting Index” – an attempt to quantify the time and effort it took to vote in each presidential election since 1996.
“We are terrible,” said Rep. Tonya Pfaff, D-Terre Haute. “It's the year 2019. We should be opening up access for voters.”
That's why she filed a bill in January that would have allowed same-day voter registration in Indiana. Republicans refused to hear it.
Twenty-one states plus the District of Columbia have same-day registration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Immediately following the implementation, states usually see a boost in voter numbers. Same-day registration states also tend to outperform other states in terms of turnout percentages, the organization said.
Pfaff said many citizens don't even think about the election until a few weeks out. And by then in Indiana it's too late to register. That's because Indiana's deadline is 29 days before an election – Monday this year. Six states set their registration deadline at 29 days out.
“I can go online and get a credit card approved in 10 minutes. Why can't I get approved to register to vote that quickly?” she asked. “I don't understand why we are putting so many hurdles in the way of voters.”
Scot Schraufnagel, professor and chair of the political science department at Northern Illinois University, said Indiana's early registration date is the biggest factor in the state's dismal Cost of Voting rankings.
“Same-day voter registration is becoming the norm,” he said.
But he also said Indiana didn't score well on the voter convenience scale, noting some states allow permanent absentee voting status. That means voters don't have to apply for an absentee ballot each election cycle.
Also, Indiana does not have a law that requires an employer to grant its employees leave, either paid or unpaid, to vote.
Noble County Clerk Shelley Mawhorter, who is also president of the state clerks association, doesn't support same-day voter registration because county staff don't have enough time to verify voters, input data into the system and transfer the information to poll books or pads at each voting location.
“We're raised in an era of convenience, but everything you do should have some rules to be followed,” she said.
But Mawhorter acknowledged there might be a middle ground between registering 29 days out and the day of the election – perhaps seven days out.
Overall, though, she thinks Hoosiers have no excuse not to vote. She noted Indiana has in-person absentee voting the month before – this year ballots can be cast starting Tuesday – and some counties have satellite early voting at local libraries or other locations aside from the courthouse.
“I think it's sad there is so much apathy,” Mawhorter said.
She supported the absentee change earlier this year. Indiana law previously set the deadline for absentee-by-mail applications to be received by the county office eight days before an election. That left a clerk just over a week to mail a ballot to a voter and the voter to fill it out and return it. To count, ballots must be received by noon on Election Day but clerks were seeing them show up days and sometimes weeks late.
Rep. Tom Saunders, R-Lewisville, offered the bill to change the application deadline, at the urging of the clerks association, to 12 days before an election.
“I thought their concerns were legitimate,” Saunders said.
This year the deadline for mail-in applications is Oct. 24. It previously would have been Oct. 28. The change, he said, provides voters more time to complete the ballot and clerks more time to process them.
Saunders said he was a county party chairman and is familiar with party politics but was still taken aback at being painted as trying to suppress votes.
He thinks the Republican-controlled General Assembly has opened up voting in numerous ways – including satellite and early voting and vote centers.
“You just have to get people interested in voting, and it seems like the younger generation just doesn't care,” he said.
Another item that doesn't help Indiana is polling hours. While 12 hours provides a large window to vote, Indiana, Hawaii and Kentucky close the polls the earliest at 6 p.m. Most other states are 7 p.m. or 8 p.m.
Bills have been filed in the past to expand Indiana's polling hours, but clerks say poll workers and staff are already working 12-to-14 hour days.
Pfaff said clerks could run two shifts instead of one. While getting enough poll workers is a challenge, more Hoosiers might volunteer for a seven-hour shift vs. a 12-hour day.
Schraufnagel said Indiana's photo ID law also hurts its ranking. The National Conference of State Legislatures labels Indiana and six other states as having the most strict laws in the nation. Others require a non-photo ID or ID can be requested. Sixteen states have no requirement to produce documentation to vote though your signature will be compared.
Indiana Republicans are proud of the voter ID law and not interested in changing it.
“I don't think there's any possible way to cover every scenario and accommodate every single person so they can vote,” Mawhorter said. “The options to vote are so much more than ever before.”