Indiana Election Commission rejects expanding voting by mail to all

The Indiana Election Commission on Friday voted against a proposal to expand absentee voting by mail to all voters for the November election.

The commission allowed all voters to cast a ballot by mail for the June 2 primary because of the pandemic, but Republicans have argued that it is not necessary to make that change for the Nov. 3 election. Current state law requires a voter to have one of several reasons in order to be eligible to vote by mail, such as being at least 65 years old, having to work all 12 hours that the polls are open or not having access to transportation to the polls.

During Friday’s virtual commission meeting, the Democratic members of the four-person board offered a proposal that, among other things, would have allowed all voters to cast a ballot by mail in November.

But the Republican members opposed making that change. The board voted 2-2 on the proposal, falling short of the majority vote needed for passage.

Commission Chairman Paul Okeson, a Republican, said he didn’t think it would be appropriate to take action on voting by mail while several federal lawsuits involving Indiana are pending. He said he expects judges to offer rulings well before Election Day. 

But the Democratic members of the board argued that decisions need to be made now to give counties time to adapt and prepare.

“The time that this process takes is not one that can wait for the courts,” commission member Suzannah Wilson Overholt said.

Zachary Klutz, the other Republican member on the commission, said he believed allowing all voters to cast a ballot by mail would be a policy change that would not be appropriate for the commission to make. Instead, he said, state lawmakers should make that decision.

But commission member Anthony Long, a Democrat, said he doesn’t believe it is a policy change, because Democrats are only suggesting the change be made for the November election, not for all future elections.

Long said that as of Thursday, more than 37,100 voters had requested absentee ballots, compared to only about 100 voters who had done so by this time in 2016.

“Voters in Indiana are frightened,” Long said. “They’re trying to get absentee ballots.”

Long and Overholt said the data shows the pandemic is not going away. Indiana has recently been reporting more than 1,000 new positive COVID-19 cases per day on a regular basis.

“People in this situation should not have to make a choice between risking their health and exercising their right to vote,” Long said.

Klutz said the situation was different in the spring when the change was made for the primary election because the statewide stay-at-home order was in effect and state officials did not know how long that would be in place.

“We’re still dealing with a pandemic, but the factors have changed,” Klutz said. “We are now in Stage 4.5 of a five-stage back-on-track plan…. We are much further down the road now.”

The board also couldn’t agree on a proposal to provide counties with envelope-opening technology to help speed up the process of counting absentee ballots that are submitted by mail.

Okeson said there is a window of opportunity to purchase the machines, and he’s worried the state will miss it.

Overholt said she thinks the need for these envelope-opening machines proves the Republican members of the commission are acknowledging the anticipated increase in voting by mail.

“You don’t need electronic fancy letter openers if you’re not having increased volume,” Overholt said. “They go hand in hand.”

The board voted 2-2 on that proposal, too.

The US Supreme Court on Thursday let stand a decision expanding absentee voting in Rhode Island, a decision that was immediately cited in an Indiana lawsuit seeking to expand absentee voting for the November election. 

Indiana Lawyer contributed to this report.

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