At Thursday’s regular meeting of Monroe County’s election board, one of the highlights was a briefing from county clerk Nicole Browne on an upcoming conversation she’s requested with Monroe County’s three county commissioners.
The idea that Browne will be pitching to commissioners at next week’s Aug. 11 work session is one with a history stretching back over a half decade—more room for the elections division.
The elections division currently shares space with the probation department in the old Johnson Hardware building at Madison and 7th streets.
Based on the history of the topic, commissioners won’t be eager to allocate more space to the election division. They approved the funds for a renovation to the building in early 2020 that was, in part, supposed to relieve some of the need for additional space.
Joining her first meeting of the three-member election board on Thursday was Shruti Rana, who was picked to succeed Carolyn VandeWiel as the Democratic Party appointee. The board consists of a Democrat, a Republican (Hal Turner), and the current county clerk.
The choice of Rana was Jennifer Crossley’s to make—as chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party. VandeWiele’s service on the election board started in January 2016.
Rana is assistant dean at Indiana University’s Hamilton Lugar School of Global and International Studies.
The friction between the county clerk and the county commissioners over space allocations burbled to the surface in early 2020, before the pandemic hit.
Planned renovations to the physical space at that time involved removing some interior walls and some partitions, to open up the space. The renovations were intended to make Election Day results processing easier.
The work was also intended to allow all early voting in 2020 to take place at a single location: Election Central. That intent was realized—even if it came under pandemic conditions, which limited the throughput of voters, due to physical distancing requirements.
A Jan. 8, 2020 memo written by Browne to the commissioners, which responded to questions they had about the need for the renovation, said:
In 2016, the Showers Building housed a well-staffed satellite that was under-utilized by the public. Parking was terrible. Building employees, working in and around the satellite location, stole parking spots reserved for and allotted to voters. Our overall experience was that, even when people in line were advised of the satellite location, they preferred to remain in line to vote at Election Central. This resulted in significant overhead given the number of voters who made the effort to vote in the Showers building.
In 2020 and now, Browne’s longer-term vision is for the elections division to occupy the whole Johnson Hardware building. It’s a vision that does not seem to be shared by county commissioners.
Brown’s Jan. 8, 2020 memo to the commissioners recites her perspective on some past contentious episodes that served as background to the 2020 effort to get approval of renovations. For example:
Under the current administration, which began in 2016, issues regarding space were revisited in a meeting with the Commissioners, following receipt of correspondence in which the Monroe County Clerk’s Office was unceremoniously directed to remove items from the Health Building (more specifically, the stored voted ballots that were statutorily mandated to be held until their “destroy by” dates following their corresponding elections).
This year (2021) is an off-year for elections, so the county commissioners and the county clerk alike are probably looking to get some resolution to the space question before 2022.
Early in 2021, at the February election board meeting, Browne told her colleagues that she was looking to remind the county board of commissioners and the county council that the elections division needs more space.
Browne said, “This is a chance to continue to put the commissioners and our council in remembrance—as I have to the best of my ability for years…that we simply are under space constraints that are untenable, so that we can get the Johnson Hardware building.”
At their May meeting, election board members got a visit from county commissioner Lee Jones, who read aloud a prepared statement on the topic of space allocations.
One part of the statement from Jones, on behalf of the commissioners, described the reasons why the commissioners see the probation department as hard to move:
It would be very difficult to move probation, both because of the volume of daily business that they do throughout the entire year, and the length of time they’ve been there. And their particular clientele, who would be quite confused by this, and it could really cause some pretty big problems.
One chunk of the statement asked for specific pieces of information:
We are here today to request that the election board provide clarity on space needs, for in-person early voting and processing for the next election cycle. In particular, we would like to be told about your needs for processing mail-in ballots. …And we would appreciate it, if you would consider both COVID and post-COVID scenarios for that. …. That’s a bit of a list. So we’ll email it all to you. And hopefully, if by mid-summer, you could let us know what your needs are, we could get everything settled in advance of any elections, and not have to do last-minute scrambling.
At this Thursday’s election board meeting, Browne referred to the visit from commissioner Jones:
This has been something that we have attempted to address with the commissioners over the years that I have been clerk. And we are incredibly grateful for what we have gotten. So far, our ballot room being a perfect example, the ability to expand the space, and allow us to have more room there at Election Central. And we did certainly express our gratitude in real time to each of the commissioners. But the needs continue. And the pandemic magnified the needs that we already had.
That’s the background that sets the table for the Aug. 11 work session with the county board of commissioners. Commissioners typically convene their work sessions after their regular Wednesday meetings, which start at 10 a.m. They typically take a five- or 10-minute break between the end of the regular meeting and the start of the work session.