Monroe County girds for in-person, mailed-in ballots alike, as registration deadline looms

A voter registration deadline of Monday, Oct. 5  is looming, and four weeks of early voting are set to start the following day at 8 a.m. The only location for early voting is Election Central, at the corner of Madison and 7th streets in downtown Bloomington.

A copy of a mailer that was sent to all registered voter households in Monroe County for the Nov. 3, 2020 election.

So Monroe County’s election board met last Tuesday afternoon to review any outstanding issues related to this year’s general election. The Nov. 3 general election will take place as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rack up about 1,110 confirmed positive tests a day statewide and about two dozen a day in Monroe County.

Tuesday’s discussion took place the same day as a ruling by federal district judge Sarah Barker, but before it was widely reported. Barker’s ruling granted a preliminary injunction against the enforcement of an Indiana election law on mailed-in ballots.

The law says mailed-in ballots have to be received by noon on Election Day, and they’ll be rejected after that, no matter when they’re postmarked. The injunction—which has been appealed—says that Indiana election officials are “not to reject mail-in ballots postmarked on or before November 3, 2020 and received on or before November 13, 2020.”

If that ruling stands, it’s not clear how it might impact local election planning.

A concern about adequate space was one theme of last Tuesday’s meeting, as the local election board is looking towards larger numbers of in-person and mailed-in votes alike.

The newly renovated Election Central facility in the old Johnson Hardware building, at Madison and 7th streets, has a lot more room for early voting than the previous configuration.

Still, four pallets worth of COVID-19-related personal protection equipment (PPE), which arrived from the secretary of state’s office, and the elbow room needed to ship out 11,100 absentee ballots so far, mean that Election Central is a little cramped for space.

A mailer that was sent out last week and will have likely have hit mailboxes by now, targets in-person voters and alerts them to their correct polling location.

Deputy county clerk Tressia Martin told board members on Tuesday that to save cost, the mailing was sent just to households, not all registered voters. To reduce the physical size of the mailer, which also helps knock down the cost, it targets just the correct polling location for the address to which it was sent, and does not include a list of all polling locations countywide.

As of Tuesday, 11,100 absentee ballots had been sent out, election supervisor Karen Wheeler told the board on Tuesday. For the 2018 general election, fewer than 1,300 were sent out, she said. For the 2016 general election about 3,300 were sent. The 23,000 absentee ballots that were sent out for this year’s primary election was a number inflated by the state election commission’s decision to make no-excuse absentee voting possible for that election.

Wheeler described a 20-step procedure for processing mailed-in ballots. As voters have started to send their completed ballots in, Wheeler said, Election Central’s ballot room is getting a lot of use. The ballot room is the secure room inside Election Central where ballots are stored until Election Day. The envelopes can’t be opened until then.

Reconciling records on mailed-in ballots is a multi-step process, too, Wheeler said. “If you think mailed ballots are easy, that is totally wrong. It’s easy for the voter. It’s probably five times harder for us,” Wheeler said.

The security system for the ballot room has seen some improvements over the old twin padlocks, with each party assigned a key to a lock. Wheeler described the new security system as requiring both a code and a token from a Democrat and a Republican. The two people have to enter their passwords within two minutes of each other in order to be granted entry, Wheeler said.

Four cameras are placed in the ballot room, with sensors that trigger an alarm, Wheeler said.

The election board could meet again on Tuesday at 2:30 p.m. this coming week to review how things are going so far. The board has been recessing and reconvening its sessions for the last several weeks, instead of ending them and noticing new meetings.