Federal judge strikes down request to broaden mail-in voting for Hoosiers
Indiana can still limit who can vote by mail in the November election after a federal appeals court on Tuesday upheld a ruling that the state's mail-in voting restrictions do not put residents' right to vote at risk.
A three-judge panel of the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voted unanimously to uphold an original ruling from the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana that said the state's mail-in voting restrictions are not unconstitutional.
"In the upcoming election, all Hoosiers, including Plaintiffs, can vote on election day, or during the early-voting period, at polling places all over Indiana. The court recognizes the difficulties that might accompany in-person voting during this time," wrote 7th Circuit Judge Michael Stephen Kanne, one of the judges on the panel.
"But Indiana’s absentee-voting laws are not to blame. It’s the pandemic, not the State, that might affect Plaintiffs’ determination to cast a ballot."
Indiana Vote By Mail, a nonprofit advocacy group, and a group of Indiana voters who were plaintiffs in the case said they were "disappointed" by the decision.
"Yesterday’s ruling is the latest in a growing number of federal court decisions in which judges have refused to acknowledge the substantial burdens imposed on voters by the pandemic or require the states to make adjustments in state election laws to alleviate those burdens and increase accessibility to the voting process," the plaintiffs said in a statement. "The opinion blames the pandemic and ignores the fact that the Constitution and Indiana’s elected officials may and should protect Hoosiers, instead of endangering them."
The plaintiffs launched the lawsuit earlier this year when they submitted a complaint requesting that Indiana's Southern District federal court freeze Indiana's age restriction on mail-in voting for the November election.
They argued that setting a limit of 65 years old or older for mail-in voting violated the 26th amendment of the U.S. Constitution, which says voting rights can't be denied on the basis of age.
But Southern District Judge James Patrick Hanlon disagreed with that argument. "Some states have chosen ‘no-excuse’ voting by mail for all. Indiana has decided otherwise,” Hanlon wrote in his Aug. 21 ruling. “The question here, however, is not whether the policy is wise, but whether it is unconstitutional.”
The plaintiffs appealed the case up to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals just days after and relied on the same argument. But the 7th Circuit judges presiding over the case ultimately agreed with Hanlon's take on the issue.
Attorney General Curtis Hill applauded the decision Wednesday morning.
“The message is starting to get through that courts should not be tinkering with election laws within a month of Election Day, even during the pandemic,” Hill said in a press release. “The U.S. Supreme Court has said that courts should not issue election-related injunctions at the eleventh hour, and perhaps that standard is starting to resonate.”
Voting practices in Indiana have run into major legal pushback in recent months.
In August, Indiana's Southern District federal court ruled that the state cannot purge voters with suspected address changes from election rolls until they notify the voter and wait at least two election cycles before removing them if they don't respond.
On Tuesday the Southern District federal court also temporarily halted a ruling that would have allowed eligible Hoosiers to postmark their mail-in ballots as late as Nov. 3, after Attorney General Curtis Hill filed a motion to stay the ruling for a week until the state can ready an appeal.
For the June primary elections this year Indiana's Election Commission expanded mail-in voting to every Hoosier to prevent overcrowding at polling places and reduce the risk that voters contract Covid-19. Shortly after Gov. Eric Holcomb signaled his disinterest in taking the same approach in November.
"I am just one of those old-fashioned guys that wants to vote in person," Holcomb said at a 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."
In Indiana, a voter must have one of 11 excuses in order to be approved to vote by mail, including being over age 65, having a disability or being out of the country on Election Day.
IndyStar reporter Elizabeth DePompei contributed to this story.
Call IndyStar courts reporter Johnny Magdaleno at 317-273-3188 or email him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @IndyStarJohnny