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Justices put school board member back on Hammond mayoral ballot

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The Indiana Supreme Court late Thursday reversed a decision from a Lake Superior judge and put a nonpartisan school board member back on the ballot for the Hammond mayoral run in the upcoming primary election.

An emergency transfer decision file-stamped at 4:10 p.m. came in George T. Janiec v. Lake County Board of Election and Registration, No. 45S00-1104-MI-228, with the justices unanimously ruling that the county election board is enjoined from keeping Janiec’s name off the ballot. Any absentee or early ballots cast by 4 p.m. April 21 remain valid, and the rest of the ruling details how the remaining votes should be handled.

Local voting machines must be reprogrammed to include Janiec’s name for the May 3 primary voting, and the parties must “immediately agree on a mechanism” for absentee and early voters who’ve received but not yet turned in ballots without his name to have the option to vote for Janiec if they choose.

This changes how the county had been handling the issue after an election board decision in early March set this all in motion.

The Democratic members of the Lake County election board removed Janiec from the ballot, finding that state statute prevents local school board members from political campaigning and saying that Janiec can only run for mayor if he first resigned from the nonpartisan school board. Janiec refused and appealed in court, and Judge Jesse Villalpando on March 30 declined to overturn the election board’s decision.

Judge Villalpando ruled that the election board acted consistently with legislative authority and local school board ethics policy disallowing this practice, despite the fact that two other school board members in Lake County are currently running for city council seats and it’s been done in the past in a state Senate race.

Attorneys for Janiec immediately appealed and asked the Supreme Court to grant emergency transfer because of the approaching election and early voting that began April 4.

“The Court finds no basis in statute or law for disqualifying Janiec on this basis,” the justices' per curiam decision says, citing its 2009 decision in Burke v. Bennett, 907 N.E.2d 529, 532, that impacted the Terre Haute mayoral race and held the disqualification statute must be construed in harmony with the longstanding policy on giving people the right to have free and equal elections.

Highland attorney William Fine, who is representing Janiec, said this court ruling reaffirms settled law and practice within the state of Indiana. He didn’t immediately know how many ballots would remain valid without Janiec’s name, or whether that issue could resurface down the road following the primary election. Janiec had run against Democratic incumbent Tom McDermott in 2007 and lost by less than 500 votes.

A 12 p.m. Monday deadline is set for the parties to agree on a way to handle the remaining votes on already distributed ballots, and the court will then resolve any remaining disputes.
 

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