Indiana lawmakers turn down changes to mail-in voting rules

February 14, 2022 GMT

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — An Indiana legislative committee on Monday turned aside a proposal that aimed to tighten the state law on the increasingly popular practice of voting by mail.

The state Senate’s elections committee voted unanimously to strip the provisions from a bill that was approved last month along party lines by the Republican-dominated House.

The proposal would have required voters who requested mail-in ballots to swear under possible penalty of perjury that they wouldn’t be able to vote in person at any time during the 28 days before Election Day.

Supporters had maintained it was aimed at encouraging people to cast ballots in person during Indiana’s early voting period, but voting rights activists argued it would discourage people from selecting their most convenient way of voting.

Sen. Greg Walker, of R-Columbus, said he believed the proposed restrictions would cause “valid confusion” among some people who would want to vote by mail.

“I don’t see any evidence that it provides us any more security or accountability in the election process,” Walker said.

The bill would now leave unchanged Indiana’s current mail-in voting limits allowing people to vote by mail if they fall into one of several categories, including being 65 or older, confined to their homes, scheduled to work throughout the 12 hours Election Day polling sites are open or being absent from their home counties on Election Day.

The House proposal would have extended those limitations to the state’s early voting period, with the request form requiring voters to swear they meet the requirements and acknowledge that “perjury is punishable by imprisonment for up to 2 1/2 years, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.”

Election officials and many political campaigns encouraged mail-in voting in 2020 because of COVID-19 concerns.

That pushed mail-in balloting to nearly 600,000, along with some 1.3 million in-person early votes cast, according to the state election division. Mail-in voting jumped about 3 1/2 times from 150,000 ballots in 2016, when almost 1 million people cast early in-person votes.

The Senate committee endorsed remaining portions of the bill, including a plan supports say will improve Indiana’s election security by adding small printers to thousands of electronic touch-screen voting machines before the 2024 election. Some voting rights groups have criticized that plan as relying on outdated technology and that the state should, instead, have all counties use paper ballots that voters mark before they are scanned for counting.

Nearly two-thirds of Indiana’s 92 counties use touch-screen machines, according to an Indiana secretary of state’s office report. That includes several of the state’s largest counties, such as Lake, Allen, Hamilton and Tippecanoe.

Senate Elections Committee Chairman Jon Ford, R-Terre Haute, said he believed adding the printer devices would allow all voters to confirm that their ballot choices were being correctly recorded.

Several county clerks, who are responsible for overseeing elections, said they were concerned about an unfunded mandate if the Legislature moves up the current deadline that allows paperless machines to remain in use through 2029.

The statewide cost is uncertain, with clerks citing estimated costs of about $1.2 million in large counties such as Allen and Hamilton. But the clerk of rural northern Indiana’s Starke County, Bernadette Manuel, said even its estimated $60,000 would be difficult for the county budget to cover.

Changes made to the bill Monday make the 2024 deadline effective only if federal or state funding is available to counties for the device expenses. Some legislative leaders support directing state money this year toward the upgrades, but that prospect is uncertain since a new two-year state budget won’t be adopted until next year.

Elkhart County Clerk Christopher Anderson said his election budget was cut by 16% for this year and that he would have no way of upgrading the voting machines from county funds.

“We are being put in a bind that we will not be able to run an election competently, efficiently or effectively,” Anderson said.