Clerk warns that thousands of mail-in ballots might not be counted; voters can still go to polls

Thousands of voters in Marion County who planned to vote by mail in Tuesday’s election may not have the opportunity because they won’t receive their ballots in time, Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge told state officials in a letter Thursday.

In addition, some voters who mailed in their absentee ballots might not have them counted because they won’t reach the Clerk’s Office by a noon deadline on Election Day, Eldridge said in the memo to Secretary of State Connie Lawson and copied to Gov. Eric Holcomb and other local and state officials.

Eldridge told state officials “it is not too late” to extend the deadline for receipt of mailed ballots. She implored the Indiana Election Commission to act.

“What a shame it will be for voters and candidates if thousands of votes sit in stacks uncounted under these circumstances,” she wrote.

Even without an extension, most voters have options. Those who did not receive a ballot or who fear their ballot won’t make it back to the Clerk’s Office by a noon deadline on Election Day can still go to the polls in person to cast a vote or drop off their mail-in ballots.

Eldridge said in her letter that COVID-19-related staffing issues and significant delays at the U.S. Postal Service have contributed to the county’s difficulty in processing 123,000 applications from residents who want to vote by mail. That’s 20 times the number of mail-in ballots voters requested during the 2016 primary election, the last time a presidential race was on the ballot.

“It appears certain that many voters will not have time to receive their ballots in the mail, deposit the voted ballots back in the mail, and have them received by the Marion County Election Board” by the state’s noon deadline on Election Day, she said.

“In short, this could mean that thousands of ballots will remain uncounted despite the best efforts of both the Marion County Election Board and the voters themselves — even while state and county officials have strongly encouraged voters to vote by mail,” she wrote.

Lawson and Holcomb announced in March — after Holcomb ordered non-essential businesses closed and Hoosiers to largely stay at home — that they would delay Indiana’s primary election from May 5 to June 2. In addition, the Indiana Election Commission voted to offer voting by mail to everyone.

Normally, Indiana voters are required to provide a reason they want to vote absentee, such as being required to work the entire 12 hours polls are open or having a disability. With those restrictions, few Hoosiers have chosen to vote by mail.

But to try cut down on crowded polling places and therefore stem transmission of the virus, state and local officials have been encouraging voters to cast ballots by mail during the primary. The Indianapolis City-County Council even voted to send a ballot application to every registered voter in Marion County.

The result has been a rush on mail-in voting that has buried the Clerk’s Office and raised concerns from some candidates.

State Treasurer Kelly Mitchell, who is running in Indiana’s 5th Congressional District primary, sent a letter on Thursday to Eldridge, Hogsett and the Marion County Election Board expressing concerns about voters who requested absentee ballots but have yet to receive them.

“I have personally spoken with voters who are concerned their voice will not be heard,” Mitchell said in a statement. “The city of Indianapolis has an obligation to ensure voters are not disenfranchised and should act immediately to remedy this issue so all eligible voters have the ability to exercise their constitutional right safely.”

A number of voters spoke out on social media as well, saying they still had not received their ballots.

Eldridge blamed state officials for some of the problems, saying the Indiana Election Commission — which is part of Lawson’s office — failed to act to set reasonable deadlines for receiving absentee ballots.

In addition, she said, state officials’ decision to require counties to “plan for and administer a substantial in-person election” in addition to encouraging most people to vote by mail “strained our resources to the breaking point.”

Eldridge expressed those concerns to Lawson in April, and Democrats pushed the election commission to extend deadlines for receiving ballots. But the commission did not act on the requests.

Voters who are concerned about their ballots can still go to a polling location on Election Day and cast a ballot after filling out a form to void the pending absentee ballot so it will not be counted.

Voters are also allowed to return their absentee ballots to a polling place instead of mailing it in. But they are still due by noon.

“Our election workers will accept hand delivered absentee ballots at our three early voting locations and our 22 Election Day vote centers,” Eldridge said.

Julia Vaughn, Common Cause Indiana policy director, said taking a ballot into the polling place defeats the purpose of voting by mail, but she hopes voters know they can do that because of the delays in mail delivery.

“We’re certainly working to make sure people recognize they have that option,” Vaughn said.

The crush of absentee ballots means that results aren’t expected to be finalized on Tuesday night.

Russell Hollis, a spokesman for the Clerk’s Office, said it could take one to two days to count all of Marion County’s absentee ballots.

Lindsey Erdody contributed to this story.

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