Election board reviews balloting, tees up hearings on electioneering charge, fine for late finance form

At its meeting on Thursday, Monroe County’s election board set its next meeting, on Feb. 4, as the time when it will hear charges of electioneering at the polls during early voting.

Screen shot of Jan. 7, 2021 Monroe County election board meeting. Election supervisor Karen Wheeler is holding up a list of incomplete registrations that she wants board members to sign.

Also at Thursday’s meeting, the board reviewed candidates with delinquent campaign finance forms.

Thursday’s board meeting included a report on a survey of people who worked the polls for the 2020 elections. The survey showed mostly positive results.

The elections also heard a review during public commentary from a voter’s perspective, given by longtime poll workers Marge and Jim Faber.

Marge Faber told the board, “As a voter, I want to tell you, that was the most fantastic voting experience I’ve ever had.” She added, “And given my age, that means over 60 years worth of voting, because I’ve never missed an election.”

After suggesting some additional signage for the Arlington Elementary School location, Faber wrapped up, saying, “Otherwise, it was fantastic. I should have written you a note earlier, and I forgot.” Thursday’s board meeting marked Faber’s 88th birthday.

At Thursday’s meeting, the chairship of the three-member board transitioned from one party’s appointee to the other, in a longstanding mutually-agreed tradition. Republican Party appointee Hal Turner, who chaired the board in 2020, passed the virtual gavel to Democratic Party appointee Carolyn VandeWiele. The third member of the board is the Monroe County clerk, who is currently Nicole Browne.

In his introductory remarks, Turner commented on the previous day’s events in Washington D.C. when pro-Trump rioters had stormed the Capitol.

“Yesterday, we saw not just an illegal act by 52 people who invaded the Capitol building, but also a gross insult to our democracy and the republic that makes our form of democracy possible,” Turner said.

Turner continued, “But the sanctity of the Constitution ultimately prevailed. And good women and men were not deterred from their sacred constitutional obligations. To quote our Indiana senator Todd Young, on the steps of the Capitol yesterday, ‘When it comes to the law, our opinions don’t matter. The law matters. I took an oath under God.’”

Electioneering at polls

The complaint about electioneering stemmed from an incident that took place during early voting in October. It had been previously discussed at an election board meeting around the time it happened.

The situation involved a voter who was wearing a mask to protect against the spread of the coronavirus. The mask reportedly had a message in support of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. That appears to be a violation of Indiana’s state election law, which says that electioneering is not allowed inside a polling place.

The voter refused to swap to a different mask or turn his own inside out. He was allowed to cast a ballot.

The definition of electioneering under Indiana statute includes “expressing support or opposition to any candidate” and “wearing or displaying an article of clothing, sign, button, or placard that states the name of any political party or includes the name, picture, photograph, or other likeness of any currently elected federal, state, county, or local official.” [IC 3-14-3-16]

It was an election worker who filed the complaint.

Depending on the outcome of the investigation, the voter could wind up charged with committing a Class A misdemeanor, Matthew Kochevar, who is co-general counsel for the Indiana Election Division, told The Square Beacon last year.

The punishment for a Class A misdemeanor is up to a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.

To get to an outcome involving jail time and a fine, the county election board could investigate the electioneering allegation at a public meeting of the board under [IC 3-6-5-31], Kochevar wrote in an emailed message to The Square Beacon. That’s the step that will take place at the board’s Feb. 4 meeting.

The election board could then vote to forward the matter to the county prosecutor under [IC 3-6-5-32], as a violation of the electioneering statute.

At Thursday’s meeting, board member Hal Turner said, “We have the option…to bring this person in front of the election board first, and have a discussion with them about the impropriety of doing this.” Turner continued, “That is the action, I would recommend that we take with this person—that we invite them to the next meeting, and that we go through this aspect of the law with them, and listen to their response.”

Board members Carolyn VandeWiele and Nicole Browne concurred with Turner’s recommendation.

Browne said she found it hard to believe that someone would not understand that there’s no partisanship allowed at the polls: “You come in and vote privately.” It’s a serious matter that can be turned over to the county prosecutor, Browne said.

VandeWiele noted that the person who was apparently electioneering was allowed to vote based on the correct decision of the election supervisor: “Because we can’t deny him that right.”

But because a report was filed, the board can take steps to prosecute, VandeWiele said. She said that the county prosecutor had told her that there’s a three-year window for filing charges. “So I think we have adequate time to invite him to the next meeting, and see what happens on that,” VandeWiele said.

Late campaign finance forms

After an election, the board routinely handles violations of campaign finance form rules about timely filing. Most are first-time offenses, which are noted, but not fined. Board member Carolyn VandeWiele reviewed the late filings from this most recent cycle.

In the category of first-time offenders this year who had their fines waived were Jessica McClellan (treasurer), Joani Shields (coroner), Trohn Enright-Randolph (surveyor) and Matthew Smith (candidate for school board). Those four had submitted their reports, but had been tardy with the filing.

First-timers who still haven’t filed were Cathy Smith (auditor) and Marsha Lovejoy (candidate for school board). They’ll be given notice that they need to file their campaign finance forms and could be subject to a fine.

Asked to attend the February meeting to talk about her third-time late filing, will be Monroe County circuit court judge Valeri Haughton, VandeWiele said.

Survey of poll workers

At Thursday’s board meeting, election staffer Sherry Morris briefed the board on the results of a survey of the 318 poll workers who worked election day.

Half of those who received a survey returned it, Morris said. In past years, about 25 percent of respondents are first-time workers. This year, 62 percent were first-time workers, Morris reported.

Morris said that 89 percent of respondents had said the overall experience was “very positive,” and 11 percent had said it was “somewhat positive.” Nobody said, “not at all positive,” she said.

Poll workers were also asked if they felt safe in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Saying they felt “very safe” were 70 percent of respondents. Saying they felt “somewhat safe” were 28 percent. Saying they felt “not at all safe” were 2 percent, Morris reported.

Saying they would work the polls again were 92 percent of respondents.