Holcomb and the Indiana GOP are resisting efforts to expand mail-in voting in November

Chris Sikich
Indianapolis Star

Gov. Eric Holcomb and Indiana Republicans are resisting efforts to expand mail-in voting in November similar to what was allowed for the June primary, when an unprecedented half a million Hoosiers voted by mail. 

Citing the long lines in the primary and the ongoing threat of the coronavirus pandemic, Democrats support expanding mail-in voting, but the decision must be bipartisan between the two parties. Voting-rights advocates also filed a lawsuit in federal court to compel the state to expand absentee voting, but the court has yet to rule. 

Holcomb, who has been asked repeatedly at news conferences about expanding absentee voting, has so far indicated he doesn't think it will be necessary, though he has not actually ruled it out.  

"I am just one of those old-fashioned guys that wants to vote in person," he said at his July 15 news conference. "And I also just wanted to see with my own two eyes whether it could be pulled off safely. I voted in Marion County, and it was." 

Indiana Republican Party Chairman Kyle Hupfer told IndyStar this week that the GOP agreed to expand mail-in voting for the primary because of the governor's now-expired stay-at-home order. Barring another emergency step along those lines to fight the coronavirus, Hupfer wants to run the election as normal, in other words largely through in-person voting.

He noted counties took measures to keep voters safe, and the primary isn't known to have spread the disease. 

"Emergency provisions are there for a true emergency," Hupfer said, "and hunkering down and staying at home is a true emergency. We're past that point." 

Democrats disagree. Dr. Woody Myers, who is running for governor against Holcomb, said the state should make every effort to ensure Hoosiers have control over their own safety. 

“The governor should implement no-excuse absentee voting, and he should do it now so counties have time to prepare to make elections easily accessible for all Hoosiers," he told IndyStar. "Today the state reported the highest number of new cases in the entirety of this global pandemic. If no-excuse absentee voting was good enough for Hoosiers in June, why not now?”

Indiana Democratic Party Chairman John Zody accuses Republicans of trying to limit turnout to secure an election-day advantage and of pandering to President Donald Trump, who has repeatedly criticized the security of absentee voting without offering proof. Hupfer denied both allegations. 

"I think it’s about Republicans playing politics," Zody said. "They know when more people vote, Democrats tend to win."

Zody indicated that waiting to make a decision on whether to expand mail-in voting by watching to see whether COVID-19 gets worse is foolhardy. 

"You have to address this right now and not wait for a stay-at-home order," he said. "It's something that works, but there is necessary infrastructure that needs to be put in place. Counties can't wait until the last minute to be told all of a sudden we're going to go to no-fault absentee voting." 

Hupfer said by the time of the June 2 primary, mail-in voting was no longer needed. 

"Democrats are trying to use this pandemic to score political points," he said. "They want to turn voting into a political issue when it's actually an issue of state law."

Lawsuit says Indiana balloting is unconstitutional 

Attorney William Groth filed a lawsuit in April on behalf of Indiana Vote by Mail Inc. to compel the Indiana Election Commission to expand absentee voting. He hopes for a decision later this summer. 

Indiana law allows voting by mail for a number of reasons, such as having a disability, being over 65 or at work or out of the county the entire time the polls are open. The list does not include the coronavirus.

Groth argues that allowing only certain voters to cast absentee ballots during a national health emergency violates the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment and the age-discrimination clause in the 26th Amendment.  

Groth said many Hoosiers feel unsafe voting in person due to the continuing threat of COVID-19. 

"In most of the states," Groth said, "expanding absentee balloting has been approved, including both red and blue states." 

Reached for comment, the Indiana attorney general's office said: “We will vigorously defend the interests of the state.” 

Election Commission split on decision

Before the primary, Holcomb, Zody and Hupfer held a press conference to say they supported the expansion of mail-in voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The four-member Indiana Election Commission, which includes two Republicans and two Democrats, then paved the way for that to happen. 

At this point, like their parties, the four members are split. 

Democrats Anthony Long and Suzannah Overholt sent a letter to Republicans Paul Okeson and Zachary Klutz asking that the board approve no-excuse absentee voting for the general election.

The letter notes that COVID-19 cases continue to increase, school districts are delaying opening and no vaccine will be available by November. 

Based upon the current situation," the letter states, "we believe the question is not a matter of if no excuse absentee balloting will be allowed, but rather is a question of when the commission makes that decision." 

Okeson, who chairs the commission, told IndyStar he is looking at COVID-19 data and is in touch with the governor and secretary of state.

"I think people are watching and paying attention, but there’s nothing like there was in the spring where we had all kinds of shelter-in-place orders," he said. "We don’t have that same environment. At this point, I don’t anticipate as much change in how we would normally do an election."

Concerns with pivoting too late

If a stay-at-home order is the bar, Democrats are concerned that the state will wait too long to expand to absentee voting, causing a backlog of balloting that could disenfranchise voters.

Marion County, in particular, was plagued by delays caused by processing and mailing absentee ballots in the primary. About 1,800 primary ballots were rejected, mostly because they came in past the June 2 deadline. 

Marion County also only had the staff to operate 22 voting centers, instead of the usual 250 or so. 

Russell Hollis, deputy director of the Marion County clerk's office, said the office has taken a number of steps to improve both in-person and mail-in voting. Still, he said it would be helpful to resolve whether the election will be altered as soon as possible. 

He said it's unclear how many polling locations will be open Election Day but that it will be significantly more than 22. He hopes finding volunteers to staff polling places will be less of an issue than it was during the primary and encourages volunteer applications at pollworker.indy.gov.

Starting Oct. 24, Marion County also will expand in-person absentee voting, which is open to all voters, in hopes of reducing Election Day lines. 

As with the primary, Marion County and other counties will require social distancing in lines while poll workers will have protective gear, potentially including masks, gloves and "finger coats" for voters to sign their name on electronic poll books. 

Hollis said the clerk's office also will improve the processing of mail-in absentee ballots and has met with the United States Postal Service to try to speed up delivery time through mail. 

"We're working on improving efficiencies on both ends so that we are better prepared for the potential of a high volume of absentee voting by mail ballot," Hollis said. 

Contact IndyStar reporter Chris Sikich at Chris.Sikich@indystar.com. Follow him on Twitter: @ChrisSikich.