Monroe County’s election board: Balloting by mail helps flatten voter curve for June 2 primary; but don’t expect same-day results

A mass mailing to every voter in Monroe County was due to go out at the end of this past week. That means sometime next week all voters should receive an absentee ballot application for the June 2 primary.

The mailing will also include a list of the seven polling locations that will be used for in-person voting.

Voting will be conducted during the COVID-19 public health emergency, which has been extended by Indiana’s governor Eric Holcomb.

The key part of Monroe County’s strategy remains getting as many people as possible to vote by mail. No-excuse absentee voting was made possible for this election by a special order of the state’s election commission.

This past Thursday, Monroe County’s election board met to review logistics for the June 2 primary election. Board members discussed preparations for the influx of mailed-in ballots, as well as the inspection of polling sites for compliance with Help American Vote Act (HAVA) accessibility requirements.

One kind of election outcome is certain: Due to the volume of mailed-in ballots, results won’t be ready on election night.

Election supervisor Karen Wheeler’s update to the board on Thursday was that 7,000 ballots had already been sent to voters who have applied for one. Voters don’t need to wait for the ballot application that they’ll soon be receiving through the mass mailing. They  can apply online through a website that Indiana’s secretary of state has set up.

The seven locations that the board has set for the primary—reduced from the usual 34 polling sites—will be getting a review for compliance with HAVA accessibility requirements. That’s the result of a push from Randy Paul, a disabilities advocate who is collecting signatures to stand as a Green Party candidate for the District 2 county commissioner seat. That seat is currently held by Democrat Julie Thomas.

Based on election board deliberations on Thursday, a polling site inspection was supposed to start Friday morning. On Saturday, election board chair Hal Turner confirmed to The Square Beacon that he and election staffer Sherry Morris, deputy county clerk Tressia Martin and consultant Bob White were out at polling sites on Friday.

By Thursday, Paul had been wrangling with the board by email for a few days over polling site accessibility. The exchange started after the last couple of election board meetings, which were held in person at Election Central. The in-person meetings prevented Paul, who is at high-risk for COVID-19 due to illness, from attending.

The reason given by the board for holding the meetings in person was to allow for easier review of the documents to be included in the mass mailing. For Paul, some progress was was made by the fact that Thursday’s meeting was held on the Zoom videoconferencing platform, because he could weigh in during public commentary.

Paul thanked Turner for “pulling us back from the edge.” At one point Paul said he was going to file a formal complaint with the state’s election commission.

Paul is looking for a more comprehensive accessibility review of all polling sites to be used during the November elections. For the primary, Paul says he just wants to get through it—by making sure that any problems with the seven sites are remedied.

On Thursday, Paul stressed the idea that instead of just eliminating a site, a solution could be found to address the problem. For example, if a door doesn’t have an automatic opener or has only a round knob, it should be an option to have a volunteer at the door to make sure it’s opened, in case someone with a disability arrives to vote.

Paul said he had faith in the disabilities community that most of them would use the option of voting by mail.

Voting by mail is the option that county election officials continue to push. Board chair Hal Turner compared the strategy to the flattening-the-curve approach that’s being taken to keep COVID-19 patients from exceeding the health care system’s capacity.

The 7,000 ballots that have already been mailed to voters stacks up pretty well against the total number of voters who voted early (in-person or by absentee ballot) in the 2016 primaries.  That year, 7,180 out of 23,229 Democrats voted early or absentee. Of the 14,854 Republicans who voted in the 2016 primary, 3,578 of them voted early or absentee. Based on official 2018 official results, about 5,000 pre-election-day ballots needed to be processed two years ago.

Election supervisor Karen Wheeler said the mailing of ballots is going relatively smoothly. She’s using the regular staff, and some county employees from other departments who had been sent home, who are unable to work at their usual jobs. That saves money, Wheeler said, because such employees are being paid anyway. For some of them it’s respite from a house full of kids, Wheeler said.

It’s “quite a factory” that has been set up to get the 7,000 ballots so far sent out, Wheeler said. Turner asked if Wheeler would need additional people to handle the wave of requests that could arrive next week after the mass mailing hits. The limitation is space, Wheeler said, because workers have to stay physically separated under COVID-19 protocols. Right now she doesn’t have space to add additional people, she told Turner.

The same limitation will affect processing of the ballots that are voted before election day. Ballot processing can’t start until the day of election. Part of the discussion at Thursday’s election board meeting was about number of two-person teams that would be needed to process the ballots. By way of comparison, it was 25 two-person teams, or 50 people, that handled  roughly 5,000 pre-election-day ballots  in 2018, according to election staffer Jack Davis.

Based on Thursday’s discussion, it doesn’t sound like there’ll be anywhere near enough space to accommodate 50 people at Election Central for ballot processing. The impact of a labor shortage for ballot processing on June 2 is that results could come later than usual.

Based on discussion at Thursday’s election board meeting, the idea is to plan not to have results ready the night of the election, or even the day after.

Board member Carolyn VandeWiele said, “It may take a couple of days. We need to do it in a way that keeps our workers safe, our voters safe and gives us accurate results.” That’s more important than having results available 15 minutes after the polls close, she said.