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Indiana justices to weigh Lake County small precinct law

June 1, 2015

The Indiana Supreme Court will hear arguments Thursday over a law that requires Lake County officials to study whether to consolidate election precincts with fewer than 500 active voters.

Republican Attorney General Greg Zoeller is appealing a Lake County judge’s ruling that threw out the statute because the Indiana Constitution prohibits legislation that applies to only one locality.

Lake Circuit Judge George Paras said nearly every county in the state has such small precincts and a law mandating only Lake County study how to reduce them, when a general law could be enacted instead, is unconstitutional, The (Munster) Times reported.

“There are no unique circumstances that rationally justify the application of the statute to Lake County alone out of all the counties in Indiana,” Paras said.

The Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the law last year, but Lake County Democratic Chairman John Buncich sued to halt a study. He believes reducing the number of precincts will make it harder for voters to get to their polling places.

State Rep. Hal Slager, R-Schererville, added the study to the law. He said he wanted to look at how precinct consolidation could be accomplished and how much money it might save if Lake County did not have to operate numerous polling places where few voters show up.

Zoeller argued in written arguments that 174 of Lake County's 525 precincts, or nearly a third, have fewer than 500 active voters and that the heavily Democratic northwestern Indiana county has more of them than any of the state’s 91 other counties.

In fact, he notes Lake County has more precincts than the combined number in Marion, Allen and Hamilton counties.

“This uniquely high number of small precincts likely leads to administrative inefficiencies and the Lake County election board preliminarily estimated that it carried substantial unnecessary financial burdens,” Zoeller said.

“The General Assembly was justified in enacting special legislation to address this problem that is unique to Lake County,” he said.

Buncich’s attorney, Clay Patton of Valparaiso, claims 28 of Indiana’s 92 counties tie or exceed Lake County for the percentage of their precincts with fewer than 500 active voters.

Patton argued if a study of small precinct consolidation is needed, it is needed in every county, not just Lake County, and to specifically target Lake County is unfair and unconstitutional.

In response, Zoeller contends the other small-precinct counties are actually small counties with few residents, and all but one have fewer than 40 total precincts.

“The Legislature selected the most grievous offender, the county with the most small precincts by over double the next closest, to perform a study to determine the feasibility of reducing the problem of small precincts,” Zoeller said. “This is reasonable.”

Paras separately declared the law also runs afoul of the Constitution's separation of powers article by prematurely ending through consolidation the terms of Lake County precinct committeemen, whose duties include filling state and local elected office vacancies.

Zoeller maintains the study law does not mandate precinct consolidation, and the separation of powers requirement does not apply because any changes to committeemen terms would be determined by local political party officials, not the state.

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