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Suit: Indiana’s absentee voter verification system unconstitutional

May 16, 2019

Common Cause Indiana and a group of registered voters in St. Joseph County are challenging the process Indiana uses to validate absentee ballots, calling it constitutionally flawed and asking a federal court to prohibit the state from rejecting absentee ballots based solely on perceived signature mismatches.

The lawsuit, filed Thursday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, highlights the method Indiana uses to review and authenticate ballots mailed in by absentee voters. Common Cause argues voters are being deprived of their due process and equal protection rights under the 14th Amendment because their ballots are being rejected without their knowledge and they are not being given an opportunity to challenge the decision.

“Thousands of Indiana voters have had their ballots rejected by elections officials and those voters were never even notified that their votes were not counted,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana. “Some voters may well have had their ballots rejected for years under this faulty system, and state and county officials have never even bothered to tell those voters that they have been disenfranchised through this unfair and undemocratic system.”

Secretary of State Connie Lawson’s office declined to comment on pending litigation. The St. Joseph County Election Board did not return a call requesting a comment. 

The lawsuit pointed to St. Joseph County election officials who rejected 15 absentee ballots cast in the May 2018 Democratic Party primary for sheriff. A court-appointed recount commission concluded the ballots were improperly rejected and ordered them counted.

In the Hoosier state, according to the lawsuit, absentee ballots must be verified by comparing the signature on the envelope containing the ballot with the signature on the application for the absentee ballot or “any other admittedly genuine signature of the voter.”

If election officials determine the signatures do not match, the ballot will not be counted in the final election tally. Voters are not required to be notified of the rejection and are not given any opportunity to contest the finding.

Moreover, Common Cause asserts the process of authenticating the signatures is “fraught with error and inconsistent application.” Indiana law does not contain any standards or criteria for determining whether a signature is genuine, and the state does not offer any training in handwriting analysis.  

The lawsuit argues Indiana’s “unilateral and unreviewable rejection of mail-in absentee ballots” violates the plaintiffs’ due process rights by depriving them and other similarly situated voters of their right to vote without due process of law.

In addition, the lawsuit claims the state’s statutes regarding signature matching are being interpreted and applied “arbitrarily and inconsistently.” It noted about 45 absentee ballots were invalidated in Hamilton County because of signature mismatches while 13 were rejected in Madison County and none were discarded in either Boone or Porter counties.

Indiana, the lawsuit argues, is violating the equal protection clause because voters are being disenfranchised by the haphazard application of the statutes.

“Our votes are our voice in our government, yet this system has stripped far too many citizens of their right to choose their elected representatives,” Common Cause president Karen Hobert Flynn said. “This system is deeply flawed and we trust the court will side with the voters who were wrongly and unknowingly disenfranchised and end this unconstitutional and undemocratic system once and for all.”

 The case is Mary J. Frederick; John Justin Collier; William L. Marks, Jr.; Minnie Lee Clark; and Common Cause Indiana v. Connie Lawson, in her official capacity as Secretary of State; St. Joseph County Election Board; and M. Catherine Finello, Rita L. Glenn, and Murray Winn, each in their official and individual capacities as member of the St. Joseph County Election Board, 1:19-cv-1959.

Plaintiffs are represented by William R. Groth and David T. Vlink of Fillenwarth Dennerline Groth & Towe, LLC, and Mark Sniderman of Findling Park Conyers Woody & Sniderman, PC.

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