INDIANAPOLIS  – For more than two centuries, Hoosiers have participated in democracy by going to their local polling place to vote. In normal times they chat with their neighbors as they wait in line.

These are not normal times.

Republican Chairman Kyle Hupfer and Democratic Chairman John Zody combined in a letter earlier this month calling for expanded absentee balloting in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that signalled what Gov. Eric Holcomb announced last Friday: A delayed primary until June 2. 

“The coronavirus pandemic is causing all of us to consider precautionary measures related to group gatherings and general interaction with other people, and Election Day is no exception,” the letter said. “We recognize that risk to the general public is currently low; however, primary voters may have a legitimate concern about voting in person, either absentee at the clerk’s office or on Election Day. For their safety, the safety of poll workers, absentee voter board members, and election administrators, and the safety of all Hoosiers, allowing maximum flexibility, while preserving a citizen’s right to vote, is paramount.”

In announcing the rescheduling of the primary, Holcomb reiterated his view stated on Thursday that the May 5 primary “needed to be pushed back to ensure the safety of county employees, poll workers and voters.” He added that he wanted to give Lawson, Hupfer and Zody “time to build a consensus.”

On Wednesday, the Indiana Election Commission voted unanimously to move the primary to June 2. At its April 22 meeting, the discussion will likely turn to how the Nov. 3 election will be conducted.

Epidemiologists and medical experts have flagged the Nov. 3 election and the potential for subsequent coronavirus waves, and that has spurred some to call for universal vote by mail, which is being conducted in Colorado, Oregon and Washington. In 2016, some 24% of ballots cast were by mail from 33 states. Of those states, 23 require a voter to request an absentee ballot.

According to Indiana University pediatrics Prof. Aaron Carroll and Harvard University Prof. Ashish Jha, writing “This Is How We Can Beat the Coronavirus” for The Atlantic: “The real horror show will begin in the fall and crush us next winter, when COVID-19 comes back with a vengeance. This is what happened with the flu in 1918. The spring was bad. Over the summer, the numbers of sick dwindled and created a false sense of security. Then, all hell broke loose. In late 1918, tens of millions of people died. If a similar pattern holds for COVID-19, then while things are bad now, it may be nothing compared with what we face at the end of the year.”

If that should occur, would Indiana be wise for planning for a vote-by-mail election over the next six months? While states have flexibility when it comes to scheduling and postponing a primary election, it would take a change in federal law to delay the Nov. 3 election.

“The perspective here should be: How do we hold the election in November? Not whether,” Edward Foley, an election law professor at Ohio State University, told USA Today in March. He suggested a robust absentee-ballot effort and more states allowing vote by mail. 

The Indiana Election Commission will reconvene on April 22 and Chairman Paul Okeson said there will be a discussion of a vote-by-mail system.” Democrat commission member Anthony Long said the June 2 election could have “unintended consequences” with the expanded absentee voting. Long continued, “We’ll see how this mail-in system works and what problems will be and there will be some.” Lawson, who was not available for comment, said last Friday, “Clerks were concerned about capacity if everybody voted by absentee.”

Hupfer told HPI that he and Zody simply wanted to open up the absentee ballot process in the face of the pandemic. “We’re hopeful that moving the election to June 2 will allow for in-person voting,” Hupfer said. “But we’re following conditions as they occur over the next several weeks as we get closer.”

Zody reacted to Wednesday’s Election Commission decision, saying, “This is a historic expansion of Hoosiers’ voting rights. For the first time, any Hoosier who wants will be able to vote by mail. I’m grateful for the action taken to remove barriers to the ballot box and protect Hoosiers’ safety. Hoosiers shouldn’t have to choose between putting their health at risk and exercising their constitutional right to vote. In addition to moving to no-fault absentee voting for the primary, the Commission took action to allow for greater flexibility in how ballots and traveling voting boards are managed and committed to expanding opportunities to apply for an absentee ballot.

“The Commission has committed to meeting again on April 22 to discuss the pieces needed to conduct the June 2 primary entirely by mail, as well as how we can best conduct our state convention in June,” Zody said. “The authority to move the primary election rests with the Election Commission and the General Assembly. Today’s action affirms that authority and takes major steps to ensure the health and safety of Hoosiers, while expanding their options to vote on June 2.”

Bill Moreau, president of the Indiana Citizen Education Foundation, believes the rescheduling of the primary to June 2 will spur turnout. “As we head toward the 2020 elections, Indiana should aspire to increase voting turnout substantially, with the goal of moving from the bottom 10 to the top 10 of states. Our nonprofit is aggressively pursuing that recommendation, which we estimate will require a 20% increase in turnout in November. We wholeheartedly support a decision to delay the primary election by four weeks, because it so closely aligns with our mission.”

Moreau suggested that the wider absentee primary voting ... “should improve turnout for the primary election – or at least head off a decline in turnout – and serve as a model for improving turnout for the Nov. 3 general election. In addition, we strongly support the recommendation to allow absentee voting by any registered voter, sometimes referred to as no-fault absentee voting.”

Should the state consider vote by mail?

While Zody saw a breakthrough with the expanded absentee primary balloting, Hupfer isn’t inclined to move toward a permanent mail-in voting system. “Initial anecdotal evidence is that wouldn’t be possible during that time period,” Hupfer said of the next six months. “We certainly could expand absentee balloting if necessary.”

Hupfer continued, “Voting in person has worked. People want to vote in person. They like to vote in person. We know that it provides for safe and secure elections. I don’t see any reason to change that moving forward.”

Indiana absentee ballot process

Indiana’s normal absentee ballot process requires at least one reason for doing so:

Having a specific, reasonable expectation that you will be absent from your county of residence on Election Day during the entire 12 hours that the polls are open;

Being an election official;

Confined on Election Day due to illness or injury during the entire 12 hours that the polls are open or caring for a confined person at a private residence;

A voter with disabilities;

65 years of age or older;

Caretaker of an individual(s) confined to a private residence due to illness or injury and prevented from voting during the entire 12 hours that the polls are open;

Scheduled to work for the entire 12 hours that the polls are open;

Prevented from voting due to observing a religious discipline or holiday during the entire 12 hours that the polls are open;

Participating in the address confidentiality program;

Being a member of the military or a public safety officer;

Prevented from voting due to not having transportation to the polls;

A voter with disabilities who believes the polling place is not accessible;

A voter who is physically unable to complete the ballot and sign the affidavit on their own.
How does a vote by mail system work?

Vote-by-mail states tend to be in the Western U.S. In Colorado, all registered voters will receive mail ballots no later than 18 days before Election Day. Completed ballots must be received by the county clerk and recorder no later than 7 p.m. on Election Day. Postmarks do not count.

Oregon has a vote-by-mail process. Instead of using traditional polling places where voters go to cast ballots on Election Day, a ballot is mailed to each registered voter. The ballot is then voted and returned to the county election office to be counted. In Oregon, ballots are mailed between 14 and 18 days before the election. After it is voted, the ballot may be mailed or hand-delivered to the county election office. In order to be counted, the ballot must be received by the county election office or designated drop site no later than 8 p.m. on Election Day.

Utah is primarily a vote-by-mail state, meaning that almost all registered voters will receive their ballots in the mail before Election Day. Mail-in ballots must be postmarked by the day before the election in order to be counted.

Washington State votes by mail. Your ballot is mailed to you at least 18 days before each election. Your voter registration address must be current.

George Stern, clerk and recorder of Jefferson County, Colo., said in a USA Today op-ed, “Given that voters receive their ballots so far in advance and have a range of options for turning them in, it is no surprise that Colorado has finished among the top states for turnout in the past several election cycles – 72% participation in 2016 and 63% in 2018, compared with 60% and 50% nationwide. Further, by significantly reducing the number of in-person voting places required, Colorado has also cut its election costs by as much as 40%.”

Stern added, “Mailed ballots mean a paper trail. Not only are paper ballots more secure than election hardware, they can also be retained and audited once the election is over. Colorado has pioneered a post-election audit model that limits the risk of machine or human errors, and that security experts say should be replicated nationwide. Moreover, each ballot envelope must be signed by the voter, and that signature is compared with the person’s signature on file before the ballot is counted, ensuring that the right person is voting and that he or she is voting only once.”

Turnout has been low in Indiana. According to the 2019 Indiana Civic Health Index released last November, the highest rate of midterm election turnout (56.4%) occurred in 1982 and was followed by many years of lower participation rates, including a 35.1% rate occurring in 2014, the lowest in the 44 years. Most recently, in 2018 – with a contested Senate race at the top of the ballot – the voter turnout rate surged to 49.3%, an increase of 14.2% over the 2014 rate. However, this marked increase in voter turnout only moved Indiana from a rank of 47th in 2014 to 43rd in the nation in 2018, due to the record mid-term turnout across the country.

In the most recent presidential election year (2016), Indiana ranked 41st, placing in the lower 25% of states. Approximately 58% of all eligible Hoosiers came to the polls in the 2016 elections compared to 61.4% of all eligible Americans. Indiana’s voter turnout rate was the highest (68.9%) in 1972, exceeding the national average of 65.5%. In 2016, Indiana’s voter turnout rate was 58.3%, lower than the national average of 61.4%.

New primary deadlines

In response to recommendations from Gov. Holcomb, Secretary of State Lawson, and the leadership of Indiana’s major political parties, the Indiana Election Commission has issued an order making it easier for Hoosiers to vote in the June 2 Primary Election. The Commission’s order included the following changes, which will apply to the June 2 Primary only:

Moves all election dates by 28 days.

Avoids reprinting ballots and other forms that have the May 5th, 2020 date.

Allows everyone to cast an absentee ballot by mail without having a specific reason to do so.

Grandfathers applications already received for an absentee ballot, which did not state an excuse permitting the person to vote by mail.

Permits county election boards to conduct meetings electronically rather than in person.

Encourages counties to appoint medical professionals to act as traveling absentee boards to help voters confined in medical facilities to cast a ballot.

Permits family members and caregivers of a confined voter to personally deliver and return a ballot.

Allows county election boards to consolidate voting locations and vote center sites and to take spacing measures to ensure the safety of voters.

Loosens restrictions on students who wish to serve as poll workers or absentee board members.

Allows county election boards to begin expeditiously counting ballots at 6 a.m. on Election Day.

Advises county election boards that election results must be determined by 3 p.m. on June 12th. 

“As we take precautions to protect Hoosiers from the threat of COVID-19, it is vitally important to protect citizens’ right to vote,” said Lawson. “I am pleased that our bi-partisan recommendations have been adopted, and I thank the Indiana Election Commission for their expeditious work. With these changes, I am confident our primary will move forward with minimal disruption.”