Indiana election commission keeps tight rein on absentee voting rules, extra mailed ballots to be opened by hand

At Friday morning’s meeting of Indiana’s four-member bi-partisan election commission, Democrat Anthony Long offered Republican Paul Okeson a good old fashioned political horse trade—ballot envelope opening machines in exchange for future consideration of relaxing absentee voting rules.

nov. 3 new poll vote

By the end of the meeting, that deal was dead and there was nothing left to say that was going to be persuasive to either side. As Okeson put it, “I don’t want to beat the horse after it has expired, so to speak.”

Democrats on the election commission wanted the commission to enact no-excuse absentee voting—as it did for the primary election—in light of the concerns that some voters have about getting infected with COVID-19, if they vote in person.

Republicans point to the fact that during the primary election, the state was still under a stay-at-home order from Indiana governor Eric Holcomb. Now, the state is at stage 4.5 of a 5-point plan to return to normal.

The impact of the commission’s impasse on Friday was that 91 of 92 counties in the state will need to open absentee ballot envelopes by hand.

What was in front of the commission was a resolution to allow all 92 counties in the state to use mechanical absentee ballot envelope openers for the upcoming general election. Currently, ballot envelopes have to be opened by election workers, except in one county of the state. And it’s possible in that one county only due to some legislation passed last year.

In “a county containing a consolidated city”—the state legislature’s way of referring to Marion County, home to Indianapolis—the 2019 law says that “absentee ballot envelopes may be opened by machine instead of by the absentee ballot counters.”

Election commissioners wanted to make the possibility of machine-opened absentee ballots available to all 92 counties in the state. That’s because they anticipate generally high turnout. And when that’s added to a higher number of people using various legal options to vote absentee, it will increase the labor needed to process absentee ballots.

Long reported that by Aug. 13, there were 37,257 absentee ballot applications that had already been entered into the statewide voter registration system. Four years ago, by Aug. 15, just 109 absentee ballot applications had been submitted by voters. That’s an indication of increased demand for absentee voting, due to concerns about getting infected with COVID-19, Long said.

So, Long offered an amendment to the resolution on ballot envelope openers. The amendment would have allowed no-excuse absentee voting for the general election this year. He said most of the wording was verbatim from the measures the commission had enacted for the primary election, which included no-excuse absentee voting. It took about 10 minutes to read the raft of proposed procedural changes into the record.

From the commission discussion, it sounded like the document had been sent by the Democrats around 11:30 p.m. the previous night. The Republicans chaffed at the late notice of the proposal.

When it was immediately apparent that the amendment would fail on a 2–2 vote, Long offered the deal. “That’s what transparency is about, we’ll negotiate a little bit,” Long told Okeson. Long asked if Okeson would be willing to set a hearing on the issue of no-excuse absentee voting, if Long withdrew his motion to amend the resolution on envelope opening machines.

Earlier in the meeting, Okeson had indicated that he didn’t want the commission to take action on no-excuse absentee voting, because of three pending federal lawsuits on elections, which name the commission as a defendant.

One of the lawsuits 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.”

So in response to Long’s gambit, Okeson told Long he was not inclined to go down the path of looking at a policy change on no-excuse absentee voting.

Okeson pointed to the need to help county clerks deal with an increased influx of absentee ballots, even without relaxing absentee ballot rules—based on the numbers that Long himself had provided. Okeson appealed to the fact that everyone agreed on the need for the envelope opening machines. Okeson said commissioners should vote on the issues separately, instead of together as Long’s amendment proposed.

Long replied, “I’m just telling you, that if this motion fails, and we’re not able to have the hearing, it would be my intention probably not to vote for the letter opener motion, until we can deal with all of the issues at once.”

Long added, “The letter opener, I believe, in the spectrum of things, is a minor thing. And I just can’t see taking a tiny band-aid approach to solving this issue or solving any issue.”

Okeson told Long he appreciated Long’s candor. “I understand, you know, you’re going to utilize one event to help produce the outcome on another, and we will just have to stay in disagreement there.”

So the vote on the motion to amend the resolution on the ballot envelope openers failed 2–2.

And, as promised, the vote on the unamended resolution on the ballot envelope openers failed 2–2.

Next up was an attempt by Long to get the commission to add to its agenda some consideration of a resolution that would interpret a key legal “excuse” for voting absentee, which reads:

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.

It’s a reason that might be argued to be applicable, if someone is concerned about other people having an illness, that is COVID-19, and they aren’t leaving their house because of it, which makes them confined due to illness.

Long said that the Democratic Party had received a lot of inquiries about that issue, but it was hard to advise people to check that box, if there is not clarity about it.

At that point during the meeting, Long wanted to email a draft of the proposed interpretation to other commissioners.

Okeson, as chair of the commission, was not interested in adding it to the day’s work—the commission was at the end of its agenda. An objection also came from the other Republican member of the commission, Zach Klutz, who said the proposed interpretation of the “confined to my residence” application wording should have been provided earlier.

Klutz worked in a piquant reference to the late hour when the previous amendment had been sent: “You maybe could have emailed it out at midnight, 30 minutes after emailing the other one—I mean, this is unacceptable.”

Long took a last shot at getting some consideration of the “confined to my residence” application wording, by moving to amend the motion to adjourn the meeting. The proposed amendment was to include the proposed interpretation of the application wording into the meeting minutes. That failed on a 2-2 vote.

With a plain motion to adjourn in front of the commission, Long asked, “What if we vote 2-to-2 on that? Do we have to sit here all day?” When it was not immediately apparent that other commissioners understood his humor, Long was quick to add, “That was a joke!”

Later on Friday afternoon, at the weekly press conference held by local leaders on the topic of COVID-19 response, Bloomington’s mayor John Hamilton was asked about the “confined to my residence” excuse for voting absentee.

“I actually think each person may say, ‘I am confined due to illness, I’m confined because of the COVID-19 spread. And I need a mail-in ballot for that.’ I think that’s a reasonable position.”

Hamilton added, “It’s unfortunately not clarified by our election officials.” Hamilton said it should be clarified by the state election commission.

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