100th anniversary of women’s voting rights commemorated by Monroe County commissioners as COVID-19 uncertainties linger in fall election prep

Aug. 26, 2020 was Women’s Equality Day in Monroe County.

Making it so was a proclamation from Monroe County’s three county commissioners, which they issued at their regular weekly meeting on Wednesday morning.

The occasion was the 100th anniversary of another proclamation, issued by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby, which formally incorporated the 19th Amendment into the Constitution, and gave women the right to vote. Colby’s proclamation was made possible eight days earlier, on Aug. 18, 1920, when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.

Wednesday morning’s proclamation from county commissioners included a general call to exercise the right to vote: “We encourage Monroe County voters to honor the sacrifices made to attain the right to vote and to cast their ballot in the 2020 general election.”

At its Tuesday meeting, Monroe County’s election board continued preparations for November’s general election, amid some uncertainty caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. On Tuesday, one specific issue addressed by the election board was the selection of polling sites, based on ADA accessibility criteria and their capacity for handling voters who need to stay physically separated.

While the polling site selection is within the county election board’s control, and is expected to be wrapped up in early September, another source of uncertainty is out of the local board’s control.

Causing the uncertainty is a question about the legal right of Indiana voters to use their fear of getting infected with COVID-19 as the specific reason to request an absentee ballot. The short answer appears to be: No.

That comes with a longer story, which Indiana’s secretary of state Connie Lawson told this way at a Wednesday afternoon press conference: “It’s really up to the voter to decide which one of those reasons applies to you, the voter. And so it’s up to the voter to decide.”

One of the excuses for absentee voting involves confinement due to illness, which some—including Bloomington’s mayor John Hamilton—have cited as providing a potential excuse for people concerned about COVID-19 infection.

A consideration for voters mulling the possibility of using COVID-19 as an excuse to vote absentee is the fact that the statements made on the absentee ballot application are subject to the penalties of perjury. The punishment includes two and a half years in prison, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.

At a news conference on Wednesday afternoon, Indiana governor Eric Holcomb announced the state will remain in Stage 4.5 of the re-opening plan and continue with the mask mandate for another 30 days.

Women’s Equality Day

On Wednesday morning, board chair Julie Thomas mused, “Who would have thought 100 years ago that the board of commissioners in Monroe County would be all women.” Besides Thomas, Penny Githens and Lee Jones serve on the three-member board of commissioners, which has legislative and executive roles in county government.

Part of the proclamation from the commissioners referred to a visit to Bloomington in 1887 by Susan B. Anthony, the well-known champion for women’s voting rights. According to the proclamation, Anthony was invited to Bloomington by Maude Showers, who was at that time a partner in the Showers Brothers Furniture Company.

A plaque mounted on building that stands on the east side of the downtown Bloomington courthouse square, between Kirkwood Avenue and 6th Street, commemorates Anthony’s visit. The plaque, which was installed in 2010 by the Bloomington’s commission on the status of women and Monroe County’s women’s commission, is affixed to a spot between the retailers Gather and Lola + Company.

The courthouse is supposed to be lit up Wednesday night with purple and gold colors, which were adopted by the women’s suffrage movement.

A commemorative “march” from the convention center to the Monroe County History Center, with staggered start times, is scheduled for Saturday, Aug. 29 at 10:30 a.m. A shuttle is supposed to be available to take people from the history center back to the start.

What’s your excuse?

An absentee ballot allows someone to vote by mail, which avoids person-to-person contact at the polls. Concern about being infected with a pandemic virus is not one of the reasons listed out on the application form for an absentee ballot.

When election board member Carolyn VandeWiele briefed the board of commissioners on Wednesday a week ago about preparations for balloting in November,  she commented on the question of COVID-19 as a possible reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

Some of the advice floating around goes along the lines of: Just check any of the reasons printed on the form and don’t worry about it. VandeWiele said, “I’ve seen people just say: Choose one, you know, tell everybody you’re a sex offender and vote by mail. You really shouldn’t be doing that.” Being a registered sex offender or being over 65 years old are among the possible reasons listed on the absentee ballot application form.

VandeWiele also said: “I will point out also that if you sign the affidavit and choose a reason to vote by mail, you are signing a legal document saying that this is a valid excuse.”

The application form says: “I swear or affirm under the penalties of perjury that all information set forth on this application is true to the best of my knowledge and belief. Perjury is punishable by imprisonment for up to two and a half years, a fine of up to $10,000, or both.”

One of the excuses on the application that seems like it could give voters a potential way to wedge a COVID-19 concern into the mix reads as follows:

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.

At the weekly Friday afternoon press conference on Aug. 14, 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.

Earlier that day, the state’s election commission had declined to  take up the question of interpreting the application form.

At the following week’s press conference last Friday (Aug. 21), county commissioner Julie Thomas addressed the question of excuses for absentee voting by offering a view different from the mayor’s: “But note that being afraid of catching COVID or contracting COVID is not a sufficient reason. So there are reasons listed on that form. Please review it when you sign it. You are signing an affidavit.”

Indiana’s secretary of state Connie Lawson said on Wednesday (Aug. 26) at an afternoon press conference: “It’s really up to the voter to decide which one of those reasons applies to you, the voter. And so it’s up to the voter to decide.”

During Tuesday’s meeting of Monroe County’s election board, election supervisor Karen Wheeler told board members that election staff had been receiving questions about the allowable reasons that could be used: “Well, what can I mark because of COVID?” Wheeler said the election’s staff answer is: “We don’t have one for COVID. But if you’re 65 and older, you can mark that one.”

Board chair Hal Turner followed up: “What if you’re 20 years old?” Wheeler recited the answer that she and the staff are giving: There is no option on the form that says COVID-19.

Wheeler reported that Angela Nussmeyer, co-counsel for the state’s election commission, had provided some additional guidance on the question. If someone draws a box on the form and writes “COVID” next to it and checks that box, then that’s enough for the election staff to reject that application for an absentee ballot. If they mark the existing option about being confined due to illness write in “COVID” then the election board has to make a decision, Nussmeyer had advised, according to Wheeler.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the sentiment among election board members was that they’d consult with the Monroe County legal department before giving Wheeler any guidance on the question.

A lawsuit that, if successful, would have made the question moot, because it would have given all voters the right to vote by mail in Indiana, was dealt a severe setback last Friday. The judge ruled against the motion for a preliminary injunction, that would have allowed Indiana to allow all voters to cast a ballot by mail.

The question before the Court is not whether it would be wise for Indiana to allow everyone to vote by mail; that’s a policy choice. Rather, the legal issue is whether Plaintiffs are likely to be able to show that the Constitution requires Indiana to give all voters the right to vote by mail in the upcoming general election. Plaintiffs have not made this showing so their motion for preliminary injunction is DENIED.

That ruling has been appealed.

Polling locations

The two issues that impacted the election board’s discussion of polling locations on Tuesday were accessibility under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) and the amount of space that’s available in potential facilities.

They reviewed a total of 36 facilities. No decisions were made on Tuesday.

For Ellettsville, it looks like Edgewood High School is probably out of the mix. School will be in session for Richland-Bean Blossom Community Schools and the gymnasium at the high school will be used as a venue for to maintain adequate distance between students for certain classes.

The board had previously received 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.

An alternative polling site to the high school that looks promising, different from Ellettsville’s town hall, is Ellettsville Christian Church.

Meadowood, a senior living center, is not available for this election. The closest alternative is Genesis Church. A stumbling block for Genesis Church is a steep ramp that wheel chair users would need to use to get into the building. The church is still in the mix, but the possibility of combining the precincts that normally vote at Meadowood, Genesis and the Unitarian Universalist Church at Unitarian Universalist.

The election board plans to meet Tuesdays at 2:30 p.m. every week for the foreseeable future, as plans get sorted out for the Nov. 3 general election.