The Journal Gazette
Thursday, April 02, 2020 1:00 am


Mailing it in

As virus lingers, in-person voting impractical

Primary elections might seem like an unnecessary worry these days – particularly elections with few contested races and little drama. But one lesson of the COVID-19 crisis is that leadership matters: Electing the best possible leaders at all levels of government is paramount.

Gov. Eric Holcomb took a necessary first step in issuing an order to push primary elections from May 5 to June 2. The Indiana Election Commission quickly made the change official and adopted Secretary of State Connie Lawson's recommendations to expand vote-by-mail guidelines and extend primary-related deadlines by 28 days. The voter registration deadline is now May 4, and early voting begins May 5.

All registered voters now have the option to cast a primary ballot by mail. But the changes don't require vote-by-mail and that leaves many concerns. The Allen County Election Board discussed some of those concerns in an online meeting Monday but settled only one.

They agreed to allow health care facility employees to assist a voter confined to a nursing home, for example, instead of the Republican and Democratic traveling board members who would typically help.

Decisions remain about early voting, satellite voting locations and hours, Election Day procedures and more. Beth Dlug, the county's director of elections, was asked to bring more information to the board's April 22 meeting. Election board members' questions and comments, however, lead to one conclusion: A primary election conducted almost entirely by mail is the best course.

“It would be helpful.” Dlug said Monday. “It would solve a lot of problems and at least give us a focus.”

Tim Pape, Democratic member of the board, said Tuesday some vote centers likely need to be maintained for voters who can't, for some reason, vote by mail, but the emphasis should be on mailed ballots.

“The logistics of trying to prepare for an in-person-voting election amidst all this uncertainty are just really hard,” he said.

Some polling locations that were available on May 4 are not available on June 2. Finding alternate sites is difficult and notifying voters of polling location changes takes time.

“The other big issue is workers,” Pape said. “We have 700 workers on Election Day and the vast majority of them are seniors, so they are highly vulnerable to the virus. How many of them are going to be able and willing to do it? It is hard – really hard – to staff those positions on Election Day.”

The upcoming election makes it more difficult because public health risks demand even more workers, Pape said.

“We probably need extra workers to sanitize machines and poll books and to promote the spacing we need,” he said.

There also are obstacles to early voting, which might normally relieve the strain on Election Day capacity. Voting at satellite locations was previously scheduled for the full week before May 4, but May 25 is Memorial Day. The same staffing concerns extend to early voting sites. And then there's the uncertainty of the public health risk.

“We don't know where we're going to be by June 2nd. It doesn't look like the healthy choice to be sending people to the polls,” Pape said. “It seems pretty obvious we need to make the decision as soon as possible to vote by mail. Then we know what the logistical challenges are and we can figure out how to get solutions.”

For now, plans are for the county election office to send postcards to voters advising them of their right to vote by mail and how to request a ballot. But the governor and state election commission should take the next step of authorizing counties to automatically send ballots to all registered voters, as is done in states already allowing vote-by-mail. Election officials in Allen County and elsewhere can then put all resources into that approach.

Vote-by-mail elections are now conducted in five states. Indiana was an unlikely prospect for joining them before today, but the reality of the public health threat is a game-changer. Hoosiers deserve elections that preserve their precious right to cast a ballot. They deserve procedures that protect their health and wellbeing. Hoosiers deserve a credible and reliable vote.

The best course now is to vote by mail.

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