Lawsuit seeks to expand voting by mail for November election

Not-for-profit Indiana Vote by Mail and 12 Indiana voters have filed a federal lawsuit against the Indiana Election Commission and Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson that seeks to give all voters the option of casting a ballot by mail in the November general election.

In response to the social distancing regulations in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the Indiana Election Commission has already voted to expand absentee voting by mail to all registered voters for the June 2 primary election, but it has not done so for the Nov. 3 election.

Normally, Indiana voters are required to provide a reason if they want to vote absentee by mail, such as being required to work the entire 12 hours polls are open, being elderly, serving in the military or having a disability.

The lawsuit, which seeks class action and was filed Wednesday in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, argues that by not allowing all voters to cast a ballot by mail, the election commission and Lawson are forcing voters to choose between their safety and exercising their right to vote.

Some medical experts have predicted that social distancing measures will still be in place through the fall and that there could be another wave of the coronavirus later this year.

“It seems pretty clear cut to us that it’s a disparate treatment of voters,” Indiana Vote by Mail President Barbara Tully said.

Indianapolis attorney William Groth, who is representing the plaintiffs in the case, said under normal circumstances, the option to vote in-person would be an acceptable alternative for those not allowed to vote by mail. But the pandemic has made that alternative unsafe and unacceptable, Groth said.

Tully said she thinks county and state election officials should have clarity now on how the fall election will be conducted, rather than waiting until a closer date and having to scramble.

She said she thinks it’s “shortsighted” that the election commission expanded the option of voting by mail for the primary but not for the general election.

“It’s about offering voters an option,” Tully said. “They should have the option to vote by mail if they want to vote that way.”

The voters involved with the case are from Marion, Hamilton and St. Joseph counties. The lawsuit lists reasons why each of the individuals would like to vote by mail in the general election, such as having high-risk family members at home, but current state law would not allow them to do so.

“Without an order from the IEC suspending the statutory restrictions on voting by mail, most, if not all, county election boards will be unwilling to provide absentee ballots to voters who are under 65 years of age and who do not fall within one of the categories of voters statutorily entitled to vote by mail, and who are not themselves physically ill from the coronavirus and confined to their residence,” the lawsuit says.

Groth said if the election commission agreed in its next meeting to expand vote-by-mail to everyone for the general election, they would “be happy to dismiss the lawsuit.”

“It seems to me the signals we’re getting … . are that Indiana is not a vote-by-mail state,” Groth said.

A spokesman for Lawson declined to comment on the lawsuit. Indiana Election Commission Chairman Paul Okeson did not immediately respond to an Indianapolis Business Journal request for comment.

The case is Tully, et al. v. Okeson, et al., 1:20-cv-1271.

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