Republican proposes switch to voting centers in Marion County as lawsuit heats up

The new Republican appointee to the Marion County Election Board is already making waves with a proposal to replace traditional polling places with voting centers in the county.

Melissa Thompson, a Marion County Republican Party leader who this week replaced Republican Maura Hoff on the board after her resignation, issued a statement on Thursday evening calling for 99 vote centers on election day that would include “options for additional early vote locations at those vote centers.”

“The residents of Marion County have been left behind while many parts of the state and country have forged new paths in voting integrity and accessibility,” Thompson said in a statement. "Using vote centers will allow the voters of Marion County to vote without disrupting their daily lives. Voters can go to the polls after dropping kids off at school, working out, or while they’re at the grocery store shopping, or on their way home from work.”

Currently, Marion County voters are assigned to a particular polling place depending on their address, and there are about 300 polling places in the county. Vote centers allow voters to vote at one of several locations of their choice.

Proponents say vote centers increase flexibility and convenience for voters, while opponents say they tend to decrease the overall number of sites and may be difficult to reach for people who don’t have reliable access to transportation.

Thompson's proposal comes ahead of a settlement conference next week in a lawsuit filed earlier this year by Common Cause and the local NAACP branch against the Marion County Election Board, the Indiana Secretary of State, and Hoff. The lawsuit alleges that African-American voters are discriminated against because of the city’s relative lack of early voting locations.

While some areas of the state that are predominantly Republican, such as Hamilton County, have increased their number of early-voting stations, the number of early-voting sites in Marion County has decreased from three to one. Expanding early voting sites requires a unanimous vote from the Marion County Election Board, which includes one Republican, one Democrat and the County Clerk.

Indianapolis Democrats say Republicans have acted as roadblocks from expanding early voting in the county. But they are pushing back against Thompson’s proposal.

“Amazingly, the Marion County Republican Party’s formal response to this voting access lawsuit is to make voting even more difficult for Indianapolis residents,” said Marion County Democratic Party chair Kate Sweeney Bell, in a statement. “In fact, under the Republican plan, Indianapolis would reduce the current 300 election day polling locations by 66 percent, while still short-changing Marion County voters on early voting.”

Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana, said she didn’t believe the plan to switch to vote centers was on-topic.

“We’re pleased they’re acknowledging there are access issues for Marion County,” Vaughn said. “But vote centers are a completely different issue. They’re not related to satellite early voting. We don’t think it’s appropriate to merge these two issues.”

Republicans are hoping Democrats consider the voting center idea as part of a possible settlement.

“If Democrats are serious about increasing voter participation, then they need to step up and come to the table with us and talk about real solutions to voter participation and voter access,” Thompson said.

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