INDIANAPOLIS — The Indiana State Election Commission declined to expand "voting by mail" for the November general election.
In a party-line vote, commissioners failed to support a Democratic-led proposal that would have allowed Hoosiers to obtain an absentee ballot for essentially any reason – a move some commissioners say is necessary due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People in this situation should not have to make a choice between risking their health and exercising their right to vote,” said commissioner co-chair Anthony Long.
“What we’re talking about today is the general election and protecting voters so they are assured of being able to vote without sacrificing their health or risking their health,” agreed commissioner Suzannah Wilson Overholt. “That is a reality right now. That is our reality that there is no reason to think right now that in November, the situation is going to be better than it is now.”
In the spring, shortly after Indiana Governor Eric Holcomb announced a stay-at-home order due to the pandemic, the election commission voted to allow any Indiana resident to request an absentee ballot to vote in the June Primary (which was delayed due to concerns over COVID-19). Long and Overholt, both Democrats, introduced a proposal at Friday’s meeting that would have permitted the same type of voting in November.
But many Republican leaders oppose expanded voting by mail.
"Everyone knows mail-in-ballots are a disaster," President Trump said recently.
“I don't know of a single case ... where someone got COVID-19 while voting at one of our polling sites on election day,” said Holcomb, who has insisted Indiana will have a more traditional, in-person election in November.
Fellow Republicans on the election commission also oppose more mail-in voting, and made that clear during Friday’s meeting.
“We still are dealing with a pandemic…but we’ve come to understand this pandemic a little better, how to protect ourselves,” said commissioner Zach Klutz. “Case in point, we are now in Stage 4.5 of a five-stage back-on-track-plan. Just because something was agreed upon in March because of an emergency doesn’t mean those same factors automatically make this appropriate this time.”
Klutz and commission chairman Paul Okeson both voted against the proposal introduced by Democrats, which failed to pass with a 2-2 deadlock. Okeson said he also would not consider holding a public hearing on the issue.
Democrats worry that could create havoc come November.
“We're going to face a problem, and we have absolutely no credible assurance this is going to be abated by November 3,” Long said.
“We all know that when you're running elections you can't wait until the last day before, the week before, to say 'Oh golly, let's make some changes so people can vote from home.' It's too late,” added Wilson Overholt.
The commission also considered whether to allow absentee ballots to be opened by machine, rather than by hand -- something that could dramatically speed up counting on Election Day. Marion County is currently the only county which has been granted approval to open ballot envelopes by machine. Republicans on the commission voted in favor of giving other counties the ability to use the same technology, but Democrats voted against the proposal, claiming the move would be a “Band-aid” to a much bigger problem if those counties did allow easier access to expanded absentee voting.
The commission says to date, Hoosiers have filed 37,157 absentee ballot requests for the November 2020 election. That number is exponentially higher than the 109 absentee ballots that had been requested statewide by mid-August prior to the 2016 general election.
Several lawsuits are now pending in federal court that could force the state to reconsider its position on allowing all voters to cast an absentee ballot due to the ongoing pandemic, but it is not clear when a ruling on those cases will be made.
The governor has encouraged Hoosiers to take advantage of in-person voting that will take place at various polling sites beginning 28 days prior to the General Election on November 3. The secretary of state’s office has announced it will provide face masks, gloves, hand sanitizer and other protective equipment to polling locations to help reduce the spread of COVID-19.