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COA: Keep early-voting sites open

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The Indiana Court of Appeals upheld a special judge's ruling to keep early-voting sites open in Lake County, holding that even if election law was violated in establishing the sites, public interest in having the sites would keep them open.

A three-judge appellate panel met an issue of first impression in interpreting Indiana Code Sections 3-11-10-26 and -26.3 in John B. Curley, et al. v. Lake County Board of Elections and Registration, et al., No. 45A03-0810-CV-512. Plaintiffs John Curley and Jim Brown appealed Lake Superior Court Special Judge Diane Kavadias Schneider's ruling to enforce a preliminary injunction keeping open satellite early-voting offices in East Chicago, Gary, and Hammond.

The appellate court focused on two questions of law: whether in-person absentee voting locations at the Circuit Court Clerk's offices are "satellite offices" under I.C. Sections 3-11-10-26 and -26.3; and whether I.C. Section 3-11-10-26(a)(1) requires the election board to hold in-person absentee voting only in the election board's office.

The appellate court held the early-voting locations in the offices of the Circuit Clerk in Gary, Hammond and East Chicago aren't considered satellite offices, so they aren't required to be open by a unanimous vote of the election board, wrote Judge Edward Najam. According to the way the statute is written, a satellite office is any office other than the office of the Circuit Court Clerk or the office of the election board. Since in Lake County, the Circuit Court Clerk has offices in each of the four courthouses, Section 26 provides for absentee voting in all of the offices maintained by the clerk of the Circuit Court, wrote the judge.

The Court of Appeals found some ambiguity between I.C. Section 3-6-5.2-6 and Section 3-11-10-26(a)(1), and wrote they are subject to more than one reasonable and plausible interpretation. The appellate court concluded the election board reasonably interpreted Section 26(a)(1) when it designated the office of the Circuit Court Clerk as a location for in-person absentee voting, wrote Judge Najam.

But even if the plaintiffs could show the election board clearly violated the law, public interest "weighs heavily on the side of" the election board's decision and the preliminary injunction keeping the offices open, wrote the judge, citing Indiana Supreme Court precedent on election law.

The appellate court remanded the case to the trial court. Judge Najam wrote in a footnote that they've declined to order entry of final judgment and believe the course is for the parties to present their arguments to the trial court for it to enter final judgment interpreting the relevant statutes.

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