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Hoosiers may have to vote in person during pandemic

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Indiana is on track to be one of only a few states in the country to not expand mail-in voting for the November general election.

That’s because Gov. Eric Holcomb, who allowed expanded mail-in voting for the delayed June primary, believes it will be safe for Hoosiers to go to the polls in November. Meanwhile, Indiana and other states are grappling with rising COVID-19 case totals as a result of reopening economies and getting people back to work in person.

It’s that reopening Holcomb cites as the reason in-person voting will be safe.

“There are a lot of people out and about, whether it’s working or going to the grocery or doing your lives, and they’re doing it safely. And we can vote safely in person as well,” he said during his weekly COVID-19 briefing Aug. 5.

The Indiana Election Commission also split a vote, 2-2, Aug. 14 on whether to expand absentee voting, with the two Republicans voting no and two Democrats voting yes. Without a majority, voting procedures won’t change.

There is a lot that could change in the three months before the election, but America has struggled to limit the spread of the new coronavirus, and voting rights advocates fear Hoosiers will be forced to sacrifice their health — and the health of anyone they interact with — to cast a ballot.

“Nobody should have to risk their health to exercise their right to vote, but that is the position Indiana officials are putting Hoosiers in right now,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, a nonpartisan group that promotes government transparency.

The State Conference of the NAACP and Common Cause Indiana have filed a federal lawsuit that claims the state’s deadline to receive mail-in ballots — noon on Election Day — doesn’t account for potential mail delays or a possible surge in mail-in ballots.

Holcomb has said he’s waiting on that lawsuit, plus another lawsuit about polling centers staying open past 6 p.m., to be resolved before making any possible changes to the November election.

Just over half of everyone who voted in Indiana for the primary did so with an absentee ballot, including 67% of Marion County voters. Expanded voting options probably helped lead to a turnout that was 4 percentage points higher than it was in the 2018 primary statewide.

Primary voters did not have to give a reason for why they wanted to vote absentee, which is something other states have adopted for the general election. Indiana voters usually have to choose from a list of 11 reasons they can’t vote in person, such as being out of the county for 12 hours on Election Day or not having transportation.

Apply for an absentee ballot by completing an application online.

The deadline to apply for an absentee ballot is Oct. 22.

Russell Hollis, deputy director of the Marion County Clerk’s Office, said about 9,000 people had already requested an absentee ballot in the county as of Aug. 7. There were a little more than 21,000 requests for the 2016 general election.

Marion County mailed all registered voters an absentee ballot application before the June primary, but that proved to be a slow process with delays, and many voters worried their ballot didn’t make it back to the election board in time to be counted.

Marion County Clerk Myla Eldridge told Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson in a letter in late May that she feared “thousands” of ballots would go uncounted.

The office received more than 123,000 absentee ballot applications before the deadline, which is 20 times more than for the 2016 primary.

Other counties in Indiana may be able to implement a large-scale vote-by-mail campaign with short notice, but Marion County needs more time.

Hollis said the office doesn’t have a deadline in mind and is instead focused on voter education.

 “We’re moving forward with the way things are today,” he said. “We are planning to be flexible enough to where if things change, we could accommodate those changes.”

If Indiana doesn’t adopt no-excuse absentee voting, and if the situation with COVID-19 doesn’t improve drastically, that would cause some worry about lower voter turnout in an election year that includes the presidency.

Chrystal Ratcliffe, president of the local NAACP chapter, isn’t worried about lower turnout for African Americans, though, who she said will turn out “no matter what.”

“At the end of the day, it suppresses the vote,” she said of not expanding mail-in voting. “That’s what they’re doing. Our mission is to still get those voters out.”

Contact staff writer Tyler Fenwick at 317-766-1406. Follow him on Twitter @Ty_Fenwick.

People in line to voteAlessandro Biascioli

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