Within two weeks, the state of Indiana got hit with two lawsuits challenging new voter laws which the plaintiffs say are disenfranchising Hoosiers at the polls.
Both were filed by the Indiana State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against Indiana officials, including Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson and Indiana Election Commission co-directors J. Bradley King and Angela Nussmeyer.
These are just the latest in election controversies that have swirled in the state since last year’s general elections.
In May, Common Cause Indiana and the NAACP filed a lawsuit over the Marion County Election Board’s decision to have only one early-voting location in Indianapolis. A month later, the state filed criminal charges against the Indiana Voter Registration Project, claiming the organization procured and submitted false, fraudulent or fictitious voter registration applications.
In August, the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP filed separate complaints against Senate Enrolled Act 220, which consolidates polling locations in Lake County, and SEA 442, which, among other things, changes the maintenance for voter lists.
The NAACP did not respond to a request for an interview. Lawson declined to comment on pending litigation.
Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, said the state is erecting barriers to the voting booth when it should be making it easier for people to cast their ballots. The only remedy, she said, is litigation.
She acknowledged the plaintiffs have no guarantees on how the court will decide, but Vaughn is hoping the court will rule before the 2018 elections.
Purging the rolls
The Aug. 23 complaint challenging SEA 442, Indiana State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, et al. v. Lawson, et al., 1:17-cv-02897, was joined by the League of Women Voters of Indiana. Plaintiffs assert the SEA 442 violates the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 by enabling Indiana to remove voters from the registration rolls without giving them proper notice or the opportunity to respond.
Before purging the voter lists, federal law requires that individuals in question be provided with a written notice to confirm his or her address and be given ample time to reply. The plaintiffs contend the new state law allows Indiana to immediately remove anyone who gets flagged by the Interstate Voter Registration Crosscheck system. This system, they say, has led to unreliable and discriminatory results.
SEA 442 was co-authored by Republican Sens. Greg Walker of Columbus and Jon Ford of Terre Haute. It unanimously passed the Indiana Senate and only had seven votes in opposition in the House.
In a press release, Barbara Bolling-Williams, president of the Indiana State Conference of the NAACP said, “No Hoosier should be silenced on Election Day. Yet, under this new law, that will happen. It’s vital that Indiana follow federal law and ensure that voters are not wrongfully removed from the rolls.”
Vaughn said Common Cause and the ACLU of Indiana had been considering filing their own lawsuit against SEA 442. The law, she said, clearly does not fall within the parameters of the NVRA. She said Common Cause and the ACLU have been talking to Lawson about their concerns with the state law and asking questions about how it would be implemented.
The two nonprofits are deciding whether to move forward with their own complaint or join the suit filed by the NAACP. “I understand the rolls are messy, I understand they have to be cleaned up, but it has to be done in a way that is lawful,” Vaughn said.
In Indiana State Conference of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, et al. v. Lawson, et al., 2:17-cv-00334, filed Aug. 9, the NAACP asserts SEA 220 disenfranchises minority voters in Lake County in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 as well as the First, 14th and 15th amendments.
Polling locations with 600 or fewer active voters must consolidate, impacting most of the precincts in the predominantly minority communities in the northern part of the county while the precincts in the predominantly white communities in the southern part will be largely unaffected, the organization said.
According to the lawsuit, SEA 220 “burdens, abridges, and denies the right to vote to African-American and Hispanic voters who are significantly more likely than Whites in Indiana to vote Democratic.”
SEA 220, co-authored by Republican Sens. Rick Niemeyer of Lowell and Aaron Freeman of Indianapolis, is similar to SEA 385 passed by the Legislature in 2014. That law consolidated precincts in Lake County that had 500 or fewer active voters.
The Indiana Supreme Court upheld the law in State v. Buncich, 51 N.E. 3d 136 (Ind. 2016). However, by the time the justices ruled, the statutory authorization for the law had expired.
In the current lawsuit, the NAACP is asking the court to issue a permanent injunction preventing the state from enforcing SEA 220.•