Proposed Indiana voting law changes draw objections

Indiana lawmakers are taking up Republican-backed proposals to eliminate straight party-line voting on state ballots and require the use of voter identification numbers for mail-in absentee ballots, moves that Democrats argue will make voting more difficult and could hurt turnout.

State House and Senate committees could vote this week on advancing election bills that include those topics, along with a provision that some lawmakers worry could lead to confusion over whether university students are allowed to vote in their college towns.

Republican House Speaker Brian Bosma of Indianapolis and other legislative leaders are squarely behind the proposal to no longer allow straight party-line voting with one click or mark of an election ballot. Some Republican and Democratic officials, however, are leery of the change, with concerns including longer lines at polling sites if voters need more time to complete their ballots.

The proposal would allow only votes for candidates for each specific office on the ballot. They still would be identified by their party affiliations.

Rep. Milo Smith, who is chairman of the House Elections Committee, said he supports the change because it will make everyone look at the candidates for whom they are voting and not simply the party label.

“I just think people need to take the time to learn about who they are voting for before going in rather than just pushing a button for straight party,” said Smith, R-Columbus. “I think that makes for a better election process.”

A separate bill would require anyone wanting to cast a mail-in absentee ballot to provide their voter identification number on the application submitted to county election officials.

Bill sponsor Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, said that ID number would be available to any voter through the state’s online voter registration system or by calling state election officials.

Young said the proposal was prompted by absentee-ballot fraud cases in recent years in southern Indiana's Jennings and Clark counties. He said it would only apply to those requesting ballots by mail, since anyone voting early in person must show photo identification.

“This is really the only way people can cheat us now because we don’t know who they are,” he said.

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody said the voter ID number was obscure information that few people know about and that requiring it would make it more difficult to vote.

“This disproportionately affects seniors, low-income voters, those who aren’t able to make it the polls on Election Day,” Zody said. “They have the right here in Indiana to vote by mail.”

Young disputed that argument, saying, “For the life of me, I don't see what the hardship is. Just call the line and say, ‘What's my number?’”

It could cost the secretary of state's office up to $1.3 million to mail information about the voter ID number requirement to all Indiana voters, according to the nonpartisan Legislative Services Agency.

Sens. Ron Alting, R-Lafayette, and Tim Lanane, D-Anderson, raised concerns during a committee hearing last week that wording in another bill could confuse voting options for college students by changing state law to say a person doesn’t gain residency in a precinct where they are “physically present” for educational purposes.

Bill sponsor Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, said he didn't want to change current practice of allowing students to vote either in their hometowns or campus communities and would clarify the bill’s language.

Lanane said the voting changes proposed by Republicans who control the Legislature are largely unneeded after the state had only a 30 percent voter turnout in last year's election.

“The last thing we need to do is to enact provisions to make it harder for people to register to vote, harder for them ultimately to vote,” Lanane said. “… That is the last thing we need to do. We ought to be finding ways to encourage people to vote.”

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