Indiana’s election commission confirms primary will include in-person voting on June 2, reveals partisan sticking points despite consensus

At a Friday noon meeting, Indiana’s four-member state election commission adopted an order that says in-person voting will take place on Election Day, June 2.

Early in-person voting will be held May 26 through June 1.

Annotated revised cropped-primary-voting
Indiana’s primary has been postponed from May 5 to June 2. There will still be some in-person voting, but vote-by-mail is being encouraged.

The possibility of a vote-by-mail election, which had some advocates across the state—as a way to ensure safety for voters in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic—now appears dim, if not extinguished.

But no-excuse absentee voting, which allows voting by mail, is an option for this year’s primary.

The possibility of a vote-by-mail election, with virtually no in-person voting, was on the agenda for a previously scheduled meeting of the election commission, set for April 22 under its March 25 order.  That meeting is still scheduled as a part of the election board’s order approved on Friday.

Based on the light partisan skirmishing at Friday’s election commission meeting, any consideration of a vote-by-mail election on April 22 is likely to be ceremonial, unless the current slight trend, towards flattening of COVID-19 numbers, reverses.

“The fact of the matter is, there are some people that feel very, very strongly about voting in person,” secretary of state Connie Lawson said at Thursday’s daily press briefing by Indiana’s governor Eric Holcomb. In her remarks, Lawson previewed the action at the election commission’s meeting, which was set for the following day.

Friday, April 17: State Election Commission Meeting

On Thursday, Lawson characterized the planned action of the election commission as the product of negotiations between her office and the two major political party state chairs, Republican Kyle Hupfer and Democrat John Zody.

Bi-partisanship was a sentiment expressed at Friday’s meeting as well, and was reflected in the 4–0 vote on the order. The commission has a 2–2 bi-partisan split, under state law.

But after the order was unanimously adopted, Democrats Anthony Long and Suzannah Wilson Overholt offered a half dozen amendments to the already-adopted order, which were aimed at enhancing by-mail balloting.

The amendments, which were considered in one batch, failed.

One of the amendments would have allowed a mailed-in ballot to be counted if it’s received on Election Day and even if it arrives three days after Election Day. Another amendment allowed for a kind of curbside early voting, where a voter could cast a ballot without leaving their vehicle.

The final amendment called for the secretary of state to mail to each registered voter in the state of Indiana an application to request an absentee ballot by mail. As an alternative, the amendment required the secretary of state to send a postcard  with information about the new absentee application portal.

Mailing every registered voter in Monroe County an application for an absentee ballot is something that local election officials will be considering next week.

Chair of the commission, Paul Okeson, drew out from Long the fact that the topics in the amendments were a part of the negotiations that led to the order they had just adopted, on a unanimous vote. For that reason, Okeson said the amendments seemed to him “a bit disingenuous.”

Long said that the amendments were not meant to denigrate the order that they had passed a few minutes before, and were not intended to be “disingenuous to the process.” He simply wanted to keep the issues on the table as the commission moves forward, Long said.

The 2–2 vote on the amendments was along party lines. Shelli Yoder, who’s competing with John Zody and Trent Feuerbach in the Democratic Party’s primary for the District 40 state senate seat, issued a statement expressing disappointment in the outcome of the vote. Yoder’s statement called on people to use the no-excuse absentee ballot option to vote by mail.

Okeson wondered if the April 22 meeting on a vote-by-mail election was even necessary, given the commission’s vote on the proposed amendments. Long countered that the April 22 meeting was part of the just-adopted order and couldn’t be unilaterally cancelled by the chair.

Recruitment of Younger Poll Workers

One of the concerns behind the amendments proposed by the Democrats involves the recruitment of poll workers. Long said he was concerned about the safety of voters and poll workers, who are generally older and in a higher risk category.

The day before, at the daily press briefing Lawson had recognized that recruitment of poll workers for in-person voting could be a challenge: “We will also be using social media to recruit high school students, college students and the recently unemployed to represent their party at the polls in an attempt to recruit younger election workers,” the secretary of state said.

High school students are allowed to work the polls in Indiana, even if they’re not yet old enough to vote. Students who are 16 and 17 years old can work the polls if they have written approval from their principal, and from their parents, among other requirements.

Here in Bloomington, the recruitment of high school students to work the polls is one of several topics planned next Friday for a Zoom video conference meeting of the Bloomington High School Republicans and the Bloomington High School North Young Democrats. The groups are advised jointly by social studies teacher Don Adams.

In an email responding to a query by The Square Beacon, Taylor Bryant, who’s president of the BHS Republicans and political director of the Monroe County GOP, said in the past several local high school students had worked the polls. She worked the polls herself in the 2019 primary. Bryant said she’d be reaching out to students in the club to help fill poll worker spots.

This past Friday’s Zoom meeting of the high school political clubs was attended by just a few club members—the Zoom platform is something they were using for the second time that day, with an eye to promoting broader participation in the coming weeks.

Maddie Shaw, co-chair with Solveig Ksander Hicks of the BHSN Young Democrats, said on Friday that the club had not really advertised and promoted working the polls that much. The approach was to let individuals decide for themselves about working the polls, she said. It might be better for high school students to work the polls than for older people, who are more vulnerable to COVID-19, Shaw said. Ksander Hicks described working the polls as “an option” that could be advertised.

Based on Friday’s initial conversation, working the polls is not necessarily something the clubs will heavily promote, because working the polls means accepting some level of health risk.

The demographics of COVID-19 cases in Indiana show small, but non-zero percentages in the 0-19 age category.  For high school students who live with older relatives, working the polls could mean bringing the virus back to those older relatives.

Adams said it might sound melodramatic, but this year, participating in democracy means putting yourself at risk. Under ordinary circumstances, the conversation might be about trying to get hundreds of high school students to work the polls, Adams said. Now, he said, students might be asking if their parents would even let them work the polls, due to the risk of exposure.

Monroe County Election Officials

The approach that local Monroe County election officials are taking is to promote heavily the vote-by-mail option.  The option is available to every voter for the June 2 primary because of the no-excuse absentee voting that was a part of the state election commission’s March 25 order.

County clerk Nicole Browne issued a statement on Wednesday promoting vote-by-mail:

Indiana voters will not be forced to choose between their safety and exercising their right to vote. … I would encourage you to submit your request for a ballot by mail now so as not to miss the May 21, 2020 deadline. In fact, I would encourage you to challenge every Monroe County voter you know to do so as well.

At the April 2 meeting of Monroe County’s election board, members encouraged people to vote by mail.

Monroe County’s election board is now scheduled to convene an emergency working session on Monday, April 20 to sort through issues raised by the state election commission’s decision.

Among the topics to be explored is the mailing of ballot applications to all registered voters of Monroe County, board member Carolyn VandeWiele told The Square Beacon.

It’s something the chair of Monroe County’s election board, Hal Turner, would support. He told The Square Beacon: “I personally am concerned about the danger posed by the virus to large groups of volunteers and voters, so I would support mailing a ballot request form to every valid registered voter as a health protection measure for the 2020 primary.”