The Journal Gazette
Sunday, August 02, 2020 1:00 am

Republicans oppose state expanding vote by mail

NIKI KELLY | The Journal Gazette

INDIANAPOLIS – An unprecedented half a million Hoosiers voted by mail-in ballot in June's primary. All but about 8,700 were counted – those were rejected for having errors or arriving late.

It was a departure for Indiana – allowing anyone to vote absentee by mail because of the coronavirus.

The pandemic still rages, with Indiana cases and hospitalizations soaring.

But Republicans are standing firmly against expanding the mail-in system again in November. 

If that position holds, thousands of Hoosiers who voted by mail in June will have to weigh the risk to their health versus their right to vote.

“Hey, you have to make a choice in life,” said Indiana Election Commission Chairman Paul Okeson.

And Indiana will be one of only eight states not allowing universal mail-in voting. Many states already authorized it but others have expanded it this year. The latest was West Virginia with officials saying concerns about coronavirus will count under a medical exemption.

“While voting can be a low-risk activity if proper safety precautions are in place and enough voting sites are available, waiting in long lines to vote not only increases the chance of disease spread, it has the effect of disenfranchising many voters who are unable to spend time in a voting line due to employment or health concerns,” said a letter sent last week to Gov. Eric Holcomb from 10 entities seeking expanded voting options.

“In addition, proper air ventilation at polling sites cannot be guaranteed, and an inability to enforce social-distancing and face mask recommendations puts voters and election workers at risk.”

Lines were a problem in the primary, as counties had trouble recruiting poll workers and vastly reduced the number of polling locations.

Indiana provides 11 reasons for which a person can vote by mail. They include being 65 or older, being out of town on Election Day, working during the entire 12 hours polls are open; and having a disability.

But none squarely fits for being afraid to get the coronavirus. 

In April, Holcomb said Indiana has long had mail-in voting and he had a high level of confidence in the integrity of the process.

“We'll have a safe and secure election,” he said.

But now the issue has become a national flashpoint with Republicans saying it is rife for fraud and President Donald Trump pushing strong against it.

When asked last week about expanding absentee voting for November, Holcomb said the stay-at-home order was in place when the decision was made to postpone the primary election that was initially scheduled for early May and open up mail-in voting. The Indiana Election Commission ultimately voted to do so – but only after having the blessing of Holcomb, Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer and GOP Secretary of State Connie Lawson.

By the June 5 primary, many of the stay-at-home provisions had fallen away.

When asked if there were problems with absentee voting in June, Holcomb said local officials were unprepared for the volume and it took a few days to count all the ballots.

Holcomb said Hoosiers have a month in advance of the Nov. 3 election to vote absentee in person, and his focus is making sure there are enough in-person voting options and that they are properly manned.

“What I will recommend is if we are in a stay-at-home posture then we're going to need that option expanded,” Holcomb said. “We are in a much better situation now than we were there when we delayed it. We have proper PPE to man the voting sites.”

Interestingly, the Indiana Republican Party used mail-in voting for its own convention nomination process in July. 

Allen County Election Administrator Beth Dlug hopes to expand the number of voting locations from 25 in the spring to 70 in the fall. But that would still be less than the usual 116 during a presidential election.

Dlug and her staff counted more than 35,000 absentee ballots in the spring – it took two days and space in the convention center to properly distance. She expects about 50,000 mail-in ballots even if officials don't open it up again. That's because some people got introduced to the process and now like it – some of whom are 65 and fit an exemption.

Mail-in voting could double if expanded. That's why she hopes the decision is made soon – to give as much time as possible to prepare.

“I'm hoping to stress to people if you qualify apply now and let's get you on the record and start sending out ballots mid-September,” Dlug said. “If they open it up we can handle those folks in October. If they wait too long I don't know what we'll do.”

She encouraged voters to contact the Indiana Election Commission if they are scared to go to a voting location in person.

Ironically, Commission Chairman Okeson said voters should contact their county clerk to learn their options and said a traveling board might help some voters. These boards travel to homebound and confined Hoosiers to help them vote.

The commission is four members – two Republicans and two Democrats – which means there must be bipartisan buy-in to expand. And Okeson hasn't scheduled a meeting of the panel.

“I would think sometime in early fall election administrators will need to know,” Okeson said. “As of today all systems are set for a regular election as it would normally run.”

He said there is a “gigantic difference” between when the state was hunkered down and now.

“A significant number of people were confined to their homes by executive order. We're not there anymore. That's the primary driver for me,” Okeson said, also saying that implementing major change in a presidential cycle is problematic.

Plus, there is a lawsuit in the middle of all this.

It was filed in federal court in May and seeks to force state officials to extend no-excuse absentee voting to the general election. Two of the 12 plaintiffs are members of the group Indiana Vote by Mail, which is based in Indianapolis.

“There is no question that the virus is imposing substantial burdens on citizens, who intend to vote. It creates anxiety and fear in the minds of many people about going to public places,” said William Groth, an attorney for the plaintiffs in the case.

He said conditions have even worsened and “we simply want to encourage maximum participation in our electoral process.”

The state filed its brief July 24 and the plaintiffs on Friday. It is unclear if the judge will hold arguments or just rule on a requested preliminary injunction from briefs.

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