Indiana Election Commission stalemates on vote-by-mail issue
INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — The Indiana Election Commission deadlocked Friday on whether to let all residents vote by mail due to the coronavirus pandemic.
During a virtual commission meeting, the four-person board was split along party lines on a proposal that would allow all voters to cast a ballot by mail in November.
Generally, the state’s voters must provide an accepted and specific reason to use an absentee ballot, including being over age 65, residing outside of the country or having to work while the polls are open. Under the stay-at-home order in June, those exceptions were lifted, allowing anyone the option to vote by mail.
For now, however, Indiana remains one of nine states that don’t have no-excuse-needed absentee voting for the November election.
Anthony Long, a Democrat on the commission, argued a vote-by-mail expansion for this year’s General Election is necessary given the continued course of the pandemic. He also cited a recent letter from State Schools Superintendent Jennifer McCormick that suggests polling places should not be located in schools for health concerns. Last week, McCormick called for expanded vote-by-mail for that reason.
More than 37,000 absentee ballot applications have been submitted already, Long said. At this time in 2016, there were just 109.
“People should not have to make a choice between risking their health and exercising their right to vote,” Long said.
But Republican members of the commission opposed making that change.
Chairman Paul Okeson said it’s still “premature” to make any decisions about voting in the general election, adding that the commission should instead await the outcome of several federal lawsuits seeking to order the state to expand absentee ballot eligibility.
Okeson’s argument echoes that of Gov. Eric Holcomb, who has maintained in recent weeks that there are enough early votng options and that in-person voting would be safe in November.
“Folks need to understand that it is safe to vote,” Holcomb said Aug. 5. “There are a lot of people out and about ... they’re doing it safely, and we can vote safely in person, as well.”
The governor said he won’t decide otherwise on mail-in voting until a federal judge issues an opinion on whether the state’s election law allowing some but not all registered voters to vote by mail violates the Constitution. He anticipates that decision around Labor Day.
Holcomb did not immediately comment on Friday’s Election Commission vote.
Democratic commission member Suzannah Wilson Overholt argued that members of the board need to be make a decision now to give the U.S. Postal Service and county election offices time to prepare.
“The time that this process takes is not one that can wait for the courts,” Overholt said.
The Democratic board members also sparred with Zachary Klutz, the other Republican member on the commission, who said he believed universal vote-by-mail requires a policy change state lawmakers — not the Election Commission — should make.
The commission also failed to approve a motion that would allow all counties in Indiana to use a letter-opening machine to more easily count absentee ballots. The board previously approved use of the automatic opener for ballots, but only in Marion County.
Casey Smith is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.