State pandemic restrictions open door to voting by mail


(Terre Haute) Tribune-Star

Voting by mail in Indiana was a solid idea in 2017 and 2018, when former state Rep. Clyde Kersey pitched it to the Indiana General Assembly.

His efforts failed. Kersey introduced numerous bills to reform Indiana’s restrictive voting laws through his 20 years in the Legislature. It was an uphill battle for the Terre Haute Democrat, who retired in 2018. The Republican Party rules the Statehouse and has largely let die attempts to enact voting by mail, Election Day registration, automatic voter registration and other reforms.

Public health concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic have resurrected the concept of voting by mail. Thankfully, a bipartisan plan will allow residents to cast ballots by mail in the 2020 Indiana primary, assuming the idea is approved by the Indiana Election Commission.

The move is one of several accommodations put in place to protect Hoosiers as they participate in the first phase of this year’s election.

One prime recommendation from public health officials is for people to practice “social distancing” to avoid spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus. That means maintaining six feet of space between individuals in public settings, especially for the most vulnerable demographic group — the elderly. Social distancing could be difficult at a busy polling site.

So last week, an agreement to lift the state’s restrictions on voting by mail was reached by Gov. Eric Holcomb, Secretary of State Connie Lawson, Republican Party chair Kyle Hupfer and Democratic Party chair John Zody. Their agreement includes moving the state’s primary from May 5 to June 2. All deadlines associated with the primary will move by 28 days.

The plan temporarily suspends the state’s existing rules for casting an absentee ballot by mail. Normally, Hoosiers must apply for an absentee ballot, provide an acceptable excuse for doing so, and be approved by the county election board. Barbara Tully, president of the Indiana Vote By Mail organization, explained in a Tribune-Star Letter to the Editor that the state’s list of 11 acceptable excuses does not include trying to avoid the coronavirus.

Thanks to the bipartisan action, any Hoosier can vote by mail in the upcoming primary, if the Election Commission gives its OK. County clerks around the state are allowed to continually mail absentee ballots until 12 days prior to the primary. Also, medical professionals will be eligible to be members of traveling boards to help nursing home and hospital patients cast votes. And, absentee voters’ family members will be able to deliver their ballots; existing rules permit only a member of the voter’s household to take possession of the ballot.

Lawson praised the agreement. “I believe the bipartisan recommendations we have asked the Indiana Election Commission to take will allow us to provide all Hoosiers the opportunity to vote,” she said in a statement Friday.

Lawson is right. Each accommodation makes sense in this difficult time. Voting by mail also makes sense in normal times.

Five Western states — both Republican red, Democratic blue, and independent purple — allow voting by mail routinely, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Oregon has conducted voting by mail since the 1990s. Twenty-one other states permit residents to vote absentee by mail in certain elections. The advantages include increased participation, convenience and election cost savings. Like any process, voting by mail has some drawbacks cited by the NCSL, including potential errors on improperly marked ballots, certain groups of people without permanent addresses being overlooked, opportunity for coercion by family members and slow results counts.

States that have used vote by mail have worked through the glitches, just as other states deal with their own voting quirks.

Hoosiers should gauge the performance of this year’s primary process. If it succeeds, they should urge their state legislators to consider vote by mail in future elections.

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