Legislators consider changes in absentee voting deadlines

INDIANAPOLIS — At a first glance, a bill proposed to change the deadline for absentee ballots by moving it up four days would appear to harm voter participation, Bartholomew County Clerk Jay Phelps told the House Elections and Apportionment Committee Thursday.

In reality, Phelps said, moving the deadline from eight days before an election to 12 days, as proposed by Rep. Thomas Saunders, R-Lewisville, in House Bill 1311, would ensure ballots aren’t lost in mail processing.

“A lot of times, even with the mail working properly, those votes still don’t get in on time,” Phelps said. “You can ask any clerk from any political party. This is simply a problem we’re having.”

Phelps, testifying on behalf of the Indiana Clerks Association, presented results from a survey of 78 counties across the state that outlined several flaws in mail vote processing, impeding ballot delivery for county clerks and voters. Eight-hundred ballots sent out to voters were never delivered, according to the results, and an estimated 350 were never received by clerks’ offices.

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The original version of House Bill 1311 would have required the shortened deadline to begin in 2022. However, advocates on the committee and from the community suggested the new deadline should start even earlier.

This prompted concern from Julia Vaughn, executive director of Common Cause Indiana.

“You’re making a change without considering the totality of the problem,” Vaughn said, citing data distributed to committee members.

The data, presented as part of a 2018 study by Northern Illinois University, ranks Indiana as the 47th most difficult state for voters. Researchers based this placement on a “cost of voting index,” which analyzes 33 variables within state election laws between 1996 and 2016 to determine the amount of effort required by voters when submitting ballots.

Several other amendments to House Bill 1311 also appeared, spanning from technical corrections to new directions outright for absentee voters.

Rep. Dan Forestal, D-Indianapolis, offered an amendment that would remove qualifications for absentee voting. A qualified absentee voter under Indiana’s current rules would include citizens age 65 or older, the disabled and, in general, any person who has a reasonable explanation for not being present in their voting county during voting hours, such as an employee scheduled for a 12-hour shift during poll hours (6 a.m. to 6 p.m.).

There are no qualifications for early voting.

“There’s a fear factor,” Forestal said. “(Voters) are worried that if they don’t cross a ‘t’ or dot an ‘I’ or their excuse is found to be not valid, that it could discourage them from applying for an absentee ballot.”

But this prompted questions from Rep. Timothy Wesco, R-Osceola, who chairs the committee.

“As a matter of public policy, I believe people should be encouraged to vote in person if at all possible,” Wesco said. “Absentee voting should frankly be discouraged, although allowed.”

Others suggested the proposal was too complicated and that it would best serve the public in a standalone bill.

Forestal’’s amendment followed an identical proposal by Rep. Carey Hamilton, D-Indianapolis, that failed in an amendment presented to House Bill 1217 on Monday. HB 1217 would establish an election board in Porter County to process voter registration forms and absentee ballots.

“To use just one example, a working mom is being asked to predict weeks ahead of time if she will not be able to get to the polls and vote,” Hamilton said in a press release after colleagues rejected her amendment. “Anyone who works is being asked to predict if they are going to be working 12 hours on Election Day. That doesn’t make sense to me.”

At the federal level, too, Congress is reviewing a bill that would make Election Day a federal holiday.

HB 1311 and several proposed amendments, namely a proposal to require ballots to be delivered at an earlier date in place of shortening the submission deadline, were held for further discussion. Members accepted amendments to allow municipalities to determine their own dates for mayoral elections and to ensure the shortened absentee vote deadline would apply every election.