Election division physical space needs: County officials meet again this week, open house scheduled

On the Wednesday morning regular meeting agenda of the Monroe County commissioners is a resolution that will establish a committee to handle the review of voting precincts and districts in light of the 2020 US Census results.

As significant as that action is, it’s not the main election news for this week in Monroe County.

On Wednesday (Sept. 1), the county commissioners will hear from county clerk Nicole Browne for the fourth time in as many weeks on the topic of space needs for the election division. The elections division is currently housed on the first floor of the old Johnson Hardware building at Madison and 7th streets. The building is known as Election Central.

Browne has told commissioners that space requirements for year-round election work and early voting point to allocation of the whole building to elections. That includes the second floor, which is currently home to the county’s probation department.

At each of the Aug. 18 and Aug. 25 regular meetings of the commissioners, at least half dozen people, all with a fair amount of community clout, spoke in support of Browne’s request. Among them were two clerks from other Indiana counties.

Wednesday’s conversation between Browne and the commissioners will follow the pattern of the past three weeks. It will take place at the work session following the regular 10 a.m. meeting of the commissioners.

The space needs of the elections division also appear on the agenda for the Thursday (Sept. 2) meeting of the election board, which starts at 1 p.m. The item labeled “Future Election Logistical Needs” is the one that will cover the space issues. Based on remarks at work sessions in previous weeks, county commissioners are expected to attend Thursday’s election board meeting.

As the county clerk, Browne is a member of the three-member county election board. She’s a Democrat. The other two members are Democratic Party appointee Shruti Rana, and Republican Party appointee Hal Turner.

From 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday, an open house at Election Central is set to take place, with the space configured with signage, tables and chairs, and staff as it would be for early voting.

Voters who cast ballots at Election Central during early voting for the 2020 general election, will recognize the layout, because it will be the same one used for last fall’s elections, according to deputy clerk Tressia Martin. Everything will be the same, except that voting machines and printers won’t be set up, Martin said.

The conversations between Browne and commissioners over the last few weeks have been tinged with some friction that dates at least as far back as 2016.

Starting that year, Browne told commissioners at the Aug. 18 work session, she had raised the issue of adequate space. “We discovered that we had significant space constraints following our working the presidential elections in 2016.”

Board of commissioners administrator Angie Purdy replied by saying that the commissioners had responded more than once to space requests, including the most recent one that resulted in renovations to the first floor Election Central space.

The renovations included removing some interior walls and partitions to provide more open space for early voting, and for Election Day results processing, among other improvements.

In connection with those early 2020 renovations, which were decided before the pandemic hit, the past history of tension over space allocations burbled to the surface.

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).

The early 2020 renovation work was also intended to allow all early voting in 2020 to take place at a single location: Election Central. That intent was realized—but it came under pandemic conditions, which limited the throughput of voters, due to physical distancing requirements.

Election board members took some criticism at the time over the long lines, because they could have established a second, satellite location for early voting, but did not.

Before the pandemic hit, the election board’s argument against using a satellite location for early voting that year, which commissioners had pitched as an alternative to renovating Election Central, was based on a bad experience with a satellite voting center in 2016.

From Browne’s Jan. 8, 2020 memo:

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.

The most recent three weeks of work sessions, centered on the additional space requests, was foreshadowed in early 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.

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 Jones’s 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.

A memo with the requested information has now been provided by Browne to the commissioners.

At last week’s work session, president of the board of commissioners, Julie Thomas said she had not yet been able to read the memo, because the county’s email network was down. “I was about ready to open it this morning when the email network went down. So I’m looking forward to seeing it soon.”

At the Aug. 18 work session Thomas said she wanted to focus on the future space needs, not the disagreements of the past.  “I don’t want to rehash the past. I don’t think there’s any purpose in it. I would rather we focus on what’s needed.”

Public comment in support of clerk’s space proposal

Those who spoke at either the Aug. 18 and Aug. 25 regular meetings of the commissioners included the two other election board members and the county clerks for Knox and Vigo counties.

  • Hal Tuner, Republican Party appointee to Monroe County election board
  • Shruti Rana, Democratic Party appointee to Monroe County election board
  • David Shelton, Knox County clerk
  • Brad Newman, Vigo County clerk
  • Ami Gandhi, an attorney with the Chicago Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights
  • David Henry, adjunct faculty at IU’s school of Public and Environmental Affairs and vice chair of the Monroe County Democratic Party
  • Mandy Yates, president of Monroe County National Organization for Women
  • Abby Ang, vice president of Monroe County National Organization for Women.
  • David Gamage, professor at Indiana University’s Maurer School of Law and volunteer poll watcher and election monitor for 2018 elections in Monroe County.
  • William Hosea, president of the Monroe County Black Democratic Caucus
  • Natalia Galvan, chair of the Indiana 9th Congressional District Latino Caucus
  • Ellen Wu, speaking on behalf of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, Indiana Chapter