Monroe County election board prepping for in-person polling numbers based on regular rules for absentee voters

The reduced number of polling sites that Monroe County used for the June 2 primary is not a part of current planning for November voting. That’s the latest word from the county election board’s meeting last Thursday.

nov. 3 new poll vote

For the general election, the county election board is looking to use all its regular sites and maybe more, not just the seven it selected for the primary from the 34 that it typically uses.

That’s because it was only for the primary election that no-excuse absentee voting was approved by the state’s election commission this spring—during the initial stages of the COVID-19 pandemic.

A larger number of absentee voters means fewer people at the polls on election day.

No-excuse absentee voting is unlikely to be enacted for this year’s general election, based on Indiana governor Eric Holcomb’s remarks at his press conference last Wednesday.

Holcomb is not inclined to allow mail-in balloting, except for the limited exceptions that are already listed out in the state’s election law.

Holcomb indicated last Wednesday that he’s still waiting to see how a currently pending case develops in federal court. That’s a lawsuit that was filed in late April against the state election commissioners and the secretary of state. The court is being asked to accept a constitutional equal protection argument—to extend the ability to vote absentee to those who are concerned about possible COVID-19 infection at the in-person polls.

At its meeting on Thursday, Monroe County’s election board reviewed a site selection issue for Ellettsville. Board members opted to keep both Edgewood High School and the town hall in the mix for now and might wind up using both on election day.

Board members also got a briefing from Chris Jackson, who’s the chair of the Bloomington council for community accessibility (CCA), about the group’s effort to help review the accessibility of the polling sites.

During public commentary, Randy Paul, who’s an advocate for the disability community, and a Green Party write-in candidate for county commissioner, was critical of the CCA’s approach, saying that the CCA was using an abbreviated version of ADA requirements. “If you shorten the requirements, because it’s more convenient, … you shorten the rights of people with disabilities to vote,” Paul said.

On the question of no-excuse absentee voting, at Thursday’s election board meeting, Monroe County clerk Nicole Browne told her two board colleagues on Thursday that county clerks in all 92 counties cross the state are emailing back and forth. “My inbox looks ridiculous right now,” she said.

Browne said as of last week, all clerks have been given the guidance to prepare for a regular election, with 28 days of early in-person voting. Browne said she had not heard anything that led her to believe the governor is in favor of the no-excuse absentee voting by mail that was allowed on an exceptional basis for the June primary.

In Monroe County, a reduction in the number of primary election polling places was possible, because of the large number of voters who chose to vote absentee. Two-thirds (17,785) of Monroe County primary voters cast a ballot by mail.

Last Wednesday, at his weekly press conference, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb got a question about his resistance to no-excuse absentee balloting. Is he asking someone who is concerned about getting infected with COVID-19 to choose between their health and the right to vote?

Holcomb responded by confirming that there will be a mask requirement at the polls. He also said that the general election would be “safe and secure and healthy” just like the primary election was.

Holcomb added, “I’ve asked this question 10 times, 10 different ways of 10 different people, if they knew of one case where someone got COVID-19 while voting at one of our polling sites on [primary] election day, and the answer has been no to date.”

Holcomb said there is a “long list” of reasons that can be given for voting absentee on the application for a ballot.

For example, if you’re over 65, that’s a reason that can be checked on the ballot application. Another reason that can be checked, which has received a lot of scrutiny, had led to speculation it might be interpreted to mean that if someone is concerned about getting infected with COVID-19, because others at the polls might have the illness, then they can vote absentee. It reads like this:

I will be confined to my residence, a health care facility, or a hospital due to illness or injury during the entire twelve (12) hours that the polls are open.

Holcomb was asked at last Wednesday’s press conference if he would be open to adding a reason to the ballot application that makes explicit that if someone is concerned about getting infected with COVID-19 at the polls, they qualify for an absentee ballot.

Holcomb responded by saying that it might be possible to address the interpretation of “confined,” but he’s waiting for some kind of outcome from a pending legal case. Holcomb said he’s hoping there will be an opinion by around Labor Day. Holcomb repeated one sentiment several times: It will be safe to vote.

Currently pending are three federal lawsuits concerning Indiana elections. Two of them were filed by Common Cause.

One of the Common Cause lawsuits challenges the deadline of noon on Election Day for receipt of mailed-in ballots.  “This law disenfranchises thousands of Hoosiers
who timely request and promptly fill out and mail back their ballots, only for them to arrive after the Noon Election Day Receipt Deadline—through no fault of their own,” the lawsuit contends.

The other Common Cause lawsuit challenges the multi-step process that has to be used to get polling hours extended.

It’s the third lawsuit that might bear on the question of no-excuse absentee balloting. It was filed in late April by several individuals and Indiana Vote by Mail, Inc. The lawsuit asks the court to “extend the privilege of voting by mail during the pandemic to Plaintiffs and all Indiana voters in the November 3, 2020, general election.”

Holcomb alluded a separation of powers issue by saying that it’s the legislature that has, over the years, contemplated the issue of what qualifies as a reason for absentee voting. And it’s the legislature that has expanded early in-person voting options.

Holcomb indicated that one factor in the mix for decision making is the ability of the election system to handle the volume of absentee ballots, if it’s opened to everyone: “I want to make sure that our system can handle the volume along the way.”

A high volume of absentee ballots could affect the timeliness of results. In Monroe County, on primary election day this year, when it was apparent it would take more time to finish counting, election staff sent workers home at 10 p.m. and brought them back the following morning to start fresh.

But it’s a strategy that they won’t be able to use in the fall, because it’s not consistent with a part of state election law that they did not know about earlier.  The law says, “To minimize delay, the absentee ballot counters shall continue the count without interruption until all absentee ballots for the precinct are canvassed.”

Holcomb is relying on the basic idea that the state is not in “a stay-at-home posture” right now with respect to preventing the spread of COVID-19. People are out and about and traveling around, Holcomb said. The state should not return to a stay-at-home situation if it’s not necessary, and in-person voting fits into that scenario, he said.

The slim prospects of no-excuse absentee balloting in November mean that Monroe County’s election board is looking to use the largest polling places that are available, given a choice. Based on size alone that would give the nod to Edgewood High School over the Ellettsville town hall.

At Thursday’s meeting, election board chair Hal Turner reported receiving correspondence from principal Dirk Ackerman saying that Edgewood High School’s auxiliary gym, where polling normally takes place, will be used as an additional space for instruction due to the COVID-19 virus. The large space in the gym allows for proper physical distancing of large classes like band and choir, Ackerman said.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, Edgewood High School objected to the use of the building for elections. But under state law, an election board can decide use a school.

At last Thursday’s meeting, the board decided to keep both the town hall and the high school in the possible mix, and is weighing the possibility of using both buildings on election day. The deadline for making a final decision on polling site locations is in early September.

Also before final decisions are made about polling sites, the board wants to review all of its sites for the accessibility of the buildings. About that review, the board heard from Chris Jackson, chair of the Bloomington’s council for community accessibility (CCA). The CCA’s accessibility committee administers an accessibility decal program, Jackson said. For the decal program, a team of volunteers goes out and measures businesses, government offices, nonprofit agencies, or schools to identify barriers to accessibility.

Jackson said the committee uses the 2010 Department of Justice ADA guidelines, but because they’re a volunteer organization, they’ve taken elements of the ADA guidelines and distilled them into a shorter survey that allows the committee, as volunteers, to do an assessment. So far, 11 of the polling sites  have been reviewed with a preliminary survey, Jackson said. He thinks the committee can review all the sites by the end of August and provide a report to the election board.

During public commentary, Randy Paul, who’s an advocate for the disability community, and a Green Party write-in candidate for county commissioner this year, responded to Jackson’s description of the work the CCA is doing. “If you shorten the requirements, because it’s more convenient, … you shorten the rights of people with disabilities to vote,” Paul said.

Paul said, “I would like to know, of the people who have disabilities and the shortened survey are using, who are you willing to be left out?” Paul said he’s been a member of the CCA for years and the decal program the the ADA training is “not even close to a ADA compliance,” Paul said. Under the Help America Vote Act, you have to comply with the ADA, Paul said.

Paul added, “It doesn’t matter how many, you know, innovative ways you try to get around this. In the end, you’re going to have to comply with the ADA.” When he’s talked with members of the CCA, they don’t know the difference between the ADA and the Help America Vote Act, Paul said.