Who was counting on a pandemic to disrupt the last election year? No one, yet local election officials and voters moved ahead, successfully adapting to a delayed primary date, no-excuse primary voting by mail and overwhelming participation in absentee voting for the November election.
About 65% of Indiana's 4.75 million voters cast a ballot in the Nov. 3 election, with more Hoosiers voting absentee – early or by mail – than on Election Day.
So, state lawmakers recognized Hoosiers' preferences and prepared for changes in Indiana election law to facilitate voting going forward, right?
Not a chance. Instead, the Indiana General Assembly is joining other GOP-controlled legislatures in unprecedented efforts to erect barriers to voting.
“In a backlash to historic voter turnout in the 2020 general election, and grounded in a rash of baseless and racist allegations of voter fraud and election irregularities, legislators have introduced three times the number of bills to restrict voting access as compared to this time last year,” writes the Brennan Center, a bipartisan public policy think tank. “Twenty-eight states have introduced, prefiled, or carried over 106 restrictive bills this year (as compared to 35 such bills in fifteen states on Feb. 3, 2020).”
Indiana lawmakers filed 32 election-related bills this year, compared with seven in 2019, the last budget session. Some are sound. Senate Bill 398, authored by Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus, sets procedures for standardizing the process of counting and verifying absentee ballots. It was supported by Democratic and Republican representatives to the state election commission.
Others, however, seem destined to restrict voter participation. SB 353 would strip the governor or election commission of emergency authority to change the time, date and manner of an election. The legislation is clearly a rebuke to Gov. Eric Holcomb, who delayed the May primary by one month and authorized all voters to cast absentee ballots by mail. The bipartisan election commission supported his wise response to the pandemic.
“It is a constitutionally legislative function,” the bill's author, Sen. Eric Houchin, R-Salem, said during a hearing last Monday, explaining that a “special session trigger” could allow the General Assembly to regroup if the legislature is not in session when an emergency might call for changing election procedures.
“I personally trust our governor to do what is right,” said Sen. Fady Qaddoura, D-Indianapolis.
The 500,000 Hoosiers who voted by mail last year clearly trusted the process and demonstrated an eagerness to vote by mail, avoiding health risks. In November, when no-excuse absentee ballots were not allowed, some voters were subjected to long waits.
“In my district people waited in line for three to five hours. In the best country on Earth – the best democracy on earth – during the rain, the very cold temperatures, Republicans and Democrats waited in line for three hours,” Quaddoura said. “Regardless of someone's political affiliation, I think it is completely wrong for an American citizen to wait in line for three hours to vote.”
Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, filed legislation to allow no-excuse absentee voting, which is currently in place in 21 states. SB 402 would also have provided for same-day registration (allowed in 21 states), established automatic voter registration for driver's license applicants (in effect in 20 states) and would have required Indiana polls to stay open until 7 p.m. Indiana currently has one of the earliest poll-closing times in the nation.
Ford's bill did not earn a hearing, nor did the House Elections Committee hear multiple bills with similar provisions.
In an interview, Ford said he was dismayed no-excuse absentee voting was allowed in the primary, but not in the general election. He said precincts in his district also had voters waiting for hours on Election Day.
“People know we would have had more participation if we allowed no-excuse voting,” he said. “You would have had your ballot; you wouldn't have to have an excuse. You could do your research and send it back. For some reason, our state makes it more difficult to have access to the ballot box.”
Ford questioned his Republican colleagues' claims that they are protecting election integrity.
“Wait a second. You all have been in the majority for the past few years,” he said. “If we're protecting election integrity, what are we really saying? You don't trust those policies you put in place?”
Voters shouldn't be surprised to see Democratic efforts to bolster participation quashed. The Republican supermajorities can point to election results as support for the status quo. But voters shouldn't overlook efforts to make it more difficult to cast a ballot, or for the governor to respond to a public health emergency. They shouldn't forget Republicans' refusal to give up the right to create their own districts when maps are redrawn this year, or to adopt voting procedures long embraced by other states.
If they were truly confident in their support among Hoosiers, making it easier for residents to vote shouldn't be so threatening to the supermajority.