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Court issues judgment in absentee ballot case

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The Marion Circuit Court has outlined the required procedures for dealing with the county's absentee ballots following a suit that accused the Marion County Election Board of not following statute.

Raymond J. Schoettle, Erica Pugh, and the Marion County Republican Party filed the complaint Oct. 31, 2008, alleging the Marion County Election Board stopped following statutes regarding absentee ballots - whether done in person or by mail - after the special election in March 2008 to elect the replacement for Congresswoman Julia Carson, who died in December 2007.

Instead of processing the challenged ballots as provisional ballots and keeping them separate, the suit claimed the ballots are immediately put through the machines, creating a risk that fraudulent ballots are being counted. The suit also claimed the election board hasn't issued specific instructions to its precinct election boards regarding challenges to absentee ballots and instructed the precincts to count all absentee ballots.

Marion Circuit Judge Theodore Sosin ordered that the election board treat all challenged mail-in absentee votes as provisional ballots and set them aside for future resolution by the election board. The order also required the board to instruct all inspectors and precinct board members to follow the procedures outlined in the Indiana Election Day Handbook.

The Indiana Court of Appeals dissolved the preliminary injunction with a 2-1 vote, but on the same day the Indiana Supreme Court reinstated Judge Sosin's original order. In March, the high court remanded the case.

The parties in Raymond J. Schoettle, et al. v. Marion County Election Board, No. 49C01-0810-PL-049131, reached a settlement in late November and Circuit Judge Louis Rosenberg issued a seven-page consent judgment Monday. That judgment binds the parties and the Marion County Democratic Party, which intervened after the case was filed.

"The record in this case demonstrates that voters and election workers are often confused about the requirements and procedures involved in absentee ballot voting and challenging," wrote Judge Rosenberg before laying out what procedures workers and challengers must follow regarding absentee voting.

The judgment includes:

- The chairs of each major political party in Marion County shall be allowed to appoint an equal number of absentee ballot clerks to review all absentee ballot applications and envelopes received by mail prior to their delivery for counting on Election Day.

- The election board maintains the power to determine whether an absentee ballot envelope signature is genuine and the precinct board will rule on the validity of any dispute regarding if a signature is genuine.

- The election board will maintain and provide to the major political parties a list of all absentee ballots for which notations are made to the precinct board.

- If a proper challenge is made, the absentee ballot may be put in the ballot box only if the absentee voter's application is properly executed to be considered an affidavit. Otherwise, a proper challenge shall be treated as a provisional ballot and returned to the election board for further disposition under election law and the consent judgment.

The consent judgment also states that placement of a name on a home foreclosure list or a voter getting an eviction notice isn't a sufficient basis for a challenge. The election board is also required to give to challengers and precinct board members written instructions before any election.

The consent judgment applies only to absentee balloting and does not affect in-person, non-absentee voting.

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