Common Cause Indiana and the state conference of the NAACP have filed a lawsuit to force Secretary of State Connie Lawson and members of the Election Commission to count absentee votes past the current noon deadline on Election Day.
The lawsuit, filed late Thursday in U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana, comes as state officials are facing increasing pressure to allow no-excuse absentee voting for the Nov. 3 general election because of the health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic that has already claimed 150,000 American lives.
Barbara Tully, president of the Indiana Vote By Mail, a nonpartisan advocacy group, is leading the charge for mail-in voting options in the general election, but she also disagrees with the noon rule.
“We have this very arbitrary deadline of noon on election day, which doesn’t speak well for voters who might not be able to get their ballot bag and drop it off until 2 p.m., and then suddenly their vote doesn’t count,” Tully said Friday during a virtual press conference called to urge no-excuse mail-in voting on Nov. 3.
State officials have resisted changes to Indiana’s voting laws, keeping the noon deadline in place when the Election Commission approved no-excuse absentee ballot voting in the June 2 primary. The original May 5 primary was delayed a month because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which so far has claimed 2,765 lives, while another 66,154 have been diagnosed with the disease, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.
The lawsuit says “even in the best of times the Noon Election Day Receipt Deadline disenfranchises voters, this is not the best of times. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has created a number of new and significant challenges for voters and election officials, including serious health risks to in-person voting and significant delays in mail-in ballot delivery.”
In the June primary, there were delays in the transmission of ballots to voters and then back to election officials, resulting in thousands of otherwise valid ballots being rejected because they were received past noon on Election Day, the lawsuit says. In Marion County, 1,514 ballots were rejected and 435 were rejected in Hamilton County, even though they were postmarked before June 2.
“The expected increase in the number of Indiana voters using a mail-in option for the November 3, 2020 election due to the COVID-19 pandemic, combined with continuing delays in mail delivery, mean that even more voters face likely disenfranchisement because of an inability to comply with the Noon Election Day Receipt Deadline,” the suit says.
The lawsuit asks the court to order the Election Commission to allow ballots to be counted for up to 10 days past the election as long as they were postmarked by Nov. 3.
The deadline won’t be as big an issue if state election officials continue to resist allowing more Hoosiers to cast their ballots by mail.
Indiana is among a handful of states where residents need to have a valid reason why they can’t vote in-person. A registered voter can get an absentee ballot if they will be gone or working during all 12 hours that the polls are open. Thirty-four states have no-excuse voting by mail.
During Friday’s virtual press conference, Tully was joined by Pierre Atlas, a Marian University political science professor, and two former lieutenant governors, Republican John Mutz and Democrat Kathy Davis, who urged state election officials to allow mail-in voting in November.
“We have gathered here for the purpose of urging the election commission and the governor to act,” Mutz said, adding that the Election Commission needs to give local election officials plenty of time to set up processes to mail out the ballots and then count them when they are returned.
“This is a fundamental aspect of democracy, and we should not be going around trying to restrict it, given where we are today where voting could be dangerous,” Atlas said. “What we’re talking about is guaranteeing the fundamental right of all Americans… to have the right to vote securely and safely in the middle of a deadly pandemic.”
Nine Democrats — one from each of Indiana’s congressional districts — have also signed a petition calling for the state’s Election Commission to meet.
Mutz and Davis rejected arguments that have come from President Donald Trump that voting by mail will lead to widespread fraud. Both said that they have never seen cases of voter fraud in their years in politics.
Wednesday, at his weekly virtual press conference to discuss the state’s handling of the pandemic, Gov. Eric Holcomb said that Hoosiers will have opportunities to vote safely in person in November because of early voting options.
Mutz, who served as lieutenant governor under Republican Robert Orr in the 1980s, said he believes the resistance from officials like Holcomb and others to mail-in voting comes from Washington, D.C.
“I think local officials are concerned about what Donald Trump will think,” he said, and Davis agreed.
Isaac Gleitz is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.