Daviess County COVID-19

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Hoosiers can vote by mail in primary, but not yet for general election

INDIANAPOLIS—Hoosiers casting their votes in the upcoming primary election won't have to go to the polls and instead will be able to cast their votes by mail in absentee ballots, sparing this state the scenes from the recent Wisconsin primary which found long lines of mask and glove-wearing voters risking infection to cast a ballot.

The change—compelled by the Covid19 virus that has placed Indiana and the nation under stay-at-home orders—also moved Indiana's traditional May primary to June 2 in a plan agreed to last month by both Republicans and Democrats, with the approval of Gov. Eric Holcomb and Secretary of State Connie Lawson. For the first time, voters of any age and health condition will be able to request an application to cast their vote by mail without having to affirm that they will be unable due to travel or other situation to go to the polls.

Jordan Wallman, a voter who is a sophomore at Indiana University, applauded the change.

"I'm hopeful that since Hoosiers can vote by mail, more people will vote since it's easily more accessible and they won't have to leave the house to do it," Wallman said. "I will definitely still be voting still and I hope more young people do as well."

But with concerns that the nation still could be in the grips of the pandemic when the general election is held Nov. 3, some are pushing for Indiana to join other states in allowing all voters to cast absentee ballots then as well.

Holcomb, asked about that possibility in a recent briefing, said that the question of allowing vote-by-mail for all Hoosiers in the November election, in addition to the June 2 primary, has come up in discussions with both major political party chairmen and with members of the Indiana Election Commission. That four-member bipartisan panel is expected to discuss the issue at its next meeting on April 22.

"They'll have some recommendations," Holcomb said of the bipartisan four-member panel. "Right now I'm waiting for them to make a specific recommendation on how we can safely and securely carry out not just our June 2 but our November election."

President Donald Trump has blasted the possibility of allowing all people to vote by mail if they choose, saying the practice is rife with fraud. Few cases of voter fraud have been found over the years. And many use mail-in ballots — including military members, people with second homes in other states and Trump himself, including in the Florida primary election in February.

It's an option, though, that voters increasingly want, especially in the face of an epidemic where a virus can be passed by a cough or touching the same computer screen or pen as an infected person. A recent Reuters-Ipsos Poll found that 72 percent of Americans want the option of a mail-in ballot, including 79 percent of Democrats and 65 percent of Republicans.

In fact, five states — Colorado, Oregon, Hawaii, Utah and Washington — have mail-in elections, with all eligible voters getting a ballot mailed to their homes. California allows counties to opt for a mail-in election — and for 2020, half of the counties so far have said yes. In addition, California and 27 other states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, allow anyone to vote by mail but they have to request a ballot. And 17 states — a list that included Indiana until its decision to temporarily lift the restrictions for the upcoming primary election — limit absentee ballots only to certain people, including the elderly, infirm and people otherwise unable to go to the polling place on Election Day.

In mail-in balloting states, the NCSL said, all registered voters are mailed a ballot well ahead of Election Day. They then have an "election period," instead of a single day, to cast their votes by marking their choices, placing the ballot in a secrecy envelope or sleeve and then into a separate mailing envelope. The voter must sign an affidavit on the exterior of the envelope and return it via mail or by dropping it off at a designated location.

Voters, however, can also choose to vote in person at a voting center or polling place. That will be the case in Indiana in the June 2 primary election.

But voters in most Indiana counties have to request an absentee ballot in advance in order to skip going to the polls on Election Day. In Marion County, Mayor Joe Hogsett said that all registered voters will be mailed an absentee ballot prior to the June 2 primary. And Monday night, the Indianapolis Star reported, the City-County Council voted 18-4 to appropriate $2 million for elections upgrades, including $1.4 million to mail out the absentee ballots. That figure includes a $500,000 for the November election.

"This is not a partisan issue, but a public safety issue," said council member Kristin Jones.

Hogsett, in a statement after the vote, said that "everyone would be encouraged to use absentee ballots rather than in-person voting on Election Day...For so many, this will be the first time they have voted by mail, and we have an obligation to make the democratic process as accessible as it can be."

Advocates of allowing all Hoosiers to vote by mail in both the primary and general elections this year say the state should be doing more to make sure people get a ballot and have it counted.

"We would like to see them order all the counties at the state's expense to mail each registered voter an absentee ballot application, so everybody will understand that you have to apply for the ballot," said Julia Vaughn policy director of Common Cause Indiana. And in November, she said, the state should simply mail the absentee ballot, rather than first requiring an application, to any registered voter who requests one.

Under the current rules, to vote in the June primary Hoosiers must register to vote by May 4. That can be done online at https://indianavoters.in.gov/. Then, they must request an absentee ballot by May 21. 

To have that ballot counted, it must be at the county elections office by noon on Election Day, June 2.

Vaughn said Common Cause would like to see the state relax those deadlines, allowing people to request a ballot eight days before the election instead of 12. In fact, she said, it had been eight days until the legislature changed the law last year.

And, she said, "we think if ballots are postmarked by Election Day they should be counted." As it is, she said, voters could mail their ballot promptly but due to a delivery delay it would be thrown out.

"We can't control the United States Postal office," Vaughn said. "And a lot of people think this is like your taxes, as long as they are postmarked by April 15, they're good. If we're not going to make these changes to accommodate voters, then the state, particularly the secretary of state, really needs to be engaged over the summer in educating people about what these deadlines are. The real travesty will be if we shift to a primarily vote-by-mail election but tens of thousands of votes aren't counted."

Voting by mail does come with its own issues, however — from mailing all the ballots to counting them on their return, likely delaying election results.

Valerie Warycha, communications director for Secretary of State Lawson, said in a statement that that office "is working with both of the major political parties and county election officials to prepare for the primary... All Hoosiers were given the opportunity to vote by mail for the primary due to the ongoing public health crisis. We are now working with the counties to provide them with the resources they need to count the absentee by mail ballots since it will be more than they usually receive."

The option to do in-person polling is still available, however. That means county elections officials still have to find enough people willing to work at polling sites throughout Election Day, coming into contact with many people. In the recent Wisconsin primary, that meant many polling places did not open. Milwaukee, with a population of 600,000, had only five polling sites open instead of the usual 180.

The danger to poll workers was made clear recently, as a 60-year-old Chicago man who had worked at a precinct as an election judge in Illinois' March 17 primary election died of coronavirus on April 1. The Chicago Board of Elections is now sending letters to all voters and other poll workers who may have come in contact with the man to let them know they may have been exposed to the virus.

Brienne Delaney, director of elections at Marion County election board, said the responses to work polling stations have been lower than usual, and if someone is to work, there would need to be protective gear provided.

Hamilton County Clerk Kathy Williams said that many of the volunteers who typically man the polling places are senior citizens, falling under the high-risk category if they contract the virus. In order to have staff at the polling stations, she is asking high school students age 16 and up to sign up instead.

"There is a form on our county website," Williams said, adding that the form no longer needs to be signed by a school principal since schools have been closed for the remainder of this academic year due to the outbreak.

While allowing more voting by mail has become a partisan issue in other states, so far in Indiana it has received bipartisan backing, at least for the primary.