The Indiana Supreme Court ruled an effort to consolidate small Lake County precincts to reduce election costs was not unconstitutional, finding it is neither an impermissible special law nor a violation of the separation of powers doctrine.
The case, State of Indiana v. John Buncich, in his capacity as chairman of the Lake County Democratic Central Committee, et al., 45S00-1409-PL-587, came on direct appeal from the Lake Circuit Court under Indiana Appellate Rule 4(A)(1)(b). The court ruled 4-1 in the decision, with Justice Robert Rucker dissenting in a separate opinion.
The Indiana General Assembly enacted Indiana Code 3-11-1.5-3.4, which aimed to reduce the cost of elections by consolidating small precincts, defined as those with 500 active voters or fewer. Of the county’s 525 precincts, 130 fell into the category at the time.
A small precinct committee was formed in Lake County to identify the precincts, determine potential cost savings, and see who could be joined together. This would also mean some recently elected committeepersons would lose their jobs. The Lake County Democratic Central Committee and five Democratic precinct committeepersons sought declaratory judgment and an injunction, saying the statute was unconstitutional as special legislation under Article 4, Section 23 of the Indiana Constitution and violated the separation of powers doctrine recognized in Article 3, Section 1.
The trial court granted LCDCC’s motion to consolidate a ruling on the merits, saying all Indiana counties have small precincts and have an interest in consolidating precincts, and there are no unique circumstances that justify the application of the statute to just Lake County. The court also ruled the statute violated Article 3, Section 1. The state appealed.
Justice Mark Massa wrote the decision for the majority and said the LCDCC did not carry its burden of proof in the case. Because Lake County has more small precincts than the next seven counties combined, Massa said the legislation was justified. “Because the rest of the counties in the state have significantly fewer small precincts, we decline to second-guess the legislature’s decision not to set up a small precinct committee in counties that don’t need it,” Massa wrote.
Massa said the statute also does not offend Indiana’s separation of powers doctrine. The precinct committeepersons do not perform a state government function, but are bound to their precinct, and the separation of powers clause only applies to those who perform a state government function.
Rucker dissented, writing speculations on what the Legislature could have found should not substitute for actual findings. He said the state’s arguments that the reducing the number of small precincts likely leads to administrative efficiencies and the Lake County Board of Elections and Registration's estimate it carried substantial financial burden does not mean it actually did, and the court should not make its decision on those claims without solid proof.
Also Rucker, who grew up in Gary, is concerned about the effect the statute will have on voting strength. Many of the precincts that will be eliminated are in the Gary area, which will give that city less say in county elections. While it’s not required a city has so much sway, Rucker wrote, it does give disparate treatment the justices are trying to avoid and has many political implications.