Indiana voters shifting to mail-in ballots for primary

Tribune-Star file/Austen LeakeIn this Nov. 5, 2018 file photo, voters packed the Vigo County Annex in Terre Haute during the final day of early voting. Many of Indiana's voters have shifted over the past decade to casting ballots days or weeks ahead of Election Day rather than standing in line at their neighborhood polling site on that day. The coronavirus outbreak is causing what could become an even bigger shift toward mail-in ballots for Indiana's upcoming primary election that's been delayed until June 2, 2020. 

Myriad concerns weigh heavily on Americans' hearts and minds right now.

Vigo Countians shouldered those as they voted in Tuesday's Indiana primary election. For some, nationwide protests over the death of an African American man in Minnesota, George Floyd, under the knee of a police officer and other racial injustices deepened their determination to vote. Others already intended to go to the polls to vote in person Tuesday, and knew which candidates they would choose.

Some entered the voting booth with additional issues in mind, too. Health care, funding for the military, a U.S. economy staggered by the coronavirus pandemic, systemic poverty, and President Trump's responses to COVID-19 and the unrest across the nation all took turns occupying the thoughts of voters.

And, of course, there's the dangers of the COVID-19 virus itself. Since March 15, the infectious disease has killed 2,197 Hoosiers — equal to the population of West Terre Haute. Thus, many voters generally heeded social distancing guidelines and wore protective face masks, as did poll workers.

Vigo resident Carrie Fiddler voted at the Haute City Center, formerly Honey Creek Mall. When asked what issue was driving her vote, the 39-year-old said, "Pretty much everything, right now."

The primary offered Hoosiers their first chance of 2020 to weigh in on the future direction of their local, state and federal government. Voters chose either a Republican or Democratic ballot, and picked candidates to represent their parties in the Nov. 3 general election in a full slate of offices from president of the United States to the county treasurer. Indiana residents had to wait longer than usual to cast those ballots.

Concerns that traditional in-person voting for the May 5 primary could further spread COVID-19 led to a one-month delay and an opening up of absentee voting by mail to any registered voter. Hoosiers enthusiastically embraced vote by mail, with 546,000 submitting requests for absentee ballots, dwarfing the 53,818 who voted by mail in 2016, when an excuse was required.

Still, many decided to personally trek to the polls and vote on Tuesday's rescheduled primary day.

Michael Snellgrose, a 28-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, recalled his parents' emphasis on voting. "They said, if you don't vote, you don't have the right to gripe about who's in office," Snellgrose said outside the Haute City Center polls.

Snellgrose studied the candidates in advance, aiming to select "people that align with my views," for the most part. He opted for a Republican ballot. The unrest across the country didn't affect his choices. The candidates' commitment to funding the military did influence his decision. "The Republican Party votes for the military [funding] most of the time," said Snellgrose, who served two active duty tours in the Middle East and South America.

He might consider Democrats for some offices in the November general election. "I split my ticket all the time," he said.

Likewise, Larry and Marsha Dull requested a Republican ballot Tuesday at the mall, but said they're not straight-ticket voters in general elections. "If they stand for the right things, we'll vote for them," said Larry, 51. "I concur," added Marsha, 50.

Carrie Fiddler also chose a Republican ballot at the mall vote center. With the president's response to the nationwide protests stirring controversy, Fiddler acknowledged Trump was "not perfect." Still, she sees his business background as an asset in stimulating the economy as it reopens from COVID-19 shutdowns.

"Even though I don't agree with everything that's gone on recently, I believe he's the best choice," Fiddler said. "I'm hoping he can fix this."

Several others at the mall early Tuesday afternoon took Democratic ballots.

First-time voters Monica Sanchez and Cayla Coleman are 18-year-old college students at Ivy Tech and Indiana State University, respectively. They voted for Sen. Bernie Sanders among nine candidates for the party's presidential nomination, even though the Vermont legislator suspended his campaign and endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden. Sanchez and Coleman appreciated Sanders' decision to cease campaign rallies as the potential of COVID-19 spread grew.

The two women were also motivated by the protests over racial injustices. This vote "is more personal for me," Sanchez said. "I want to see things get better for people. I want to see people [treated] equally in every way."

"Especially for people of color," Coleman added.

Tina Simons, 32, shared that concern. "I believe that our voices should be heard now, more than ever. I believe in creating equity in every area of life. I want black lives to matter," said Simons, who is white.

Poverty in the community and beyond is another issue guiding Simons' vote. She founded the Vigo Mutual Aid COVID-19 response to supply needy residents with support and assistance. Electing office-holders that will enact policies to address racial injustice and poverty is her priority. "It's time for change," Simons said.

Standing in line outside the vote center at the Vigo County Annex, 27-year-old Terre Haute resident Carrie Moffett leaned toward requesting a Democratic ballot. For her, health care coverage loomed large in her decision. The future viability of the Healthy Indiana Plan, through which she is covered, causes her to "always be concerned."

"Mostly, I would just like to see the American people getting taken care of better," Moffett said.

Back at the mall vote center, 24-year-old Courtney Natt walked out of the polling site and into the facility's long corridor. Her motivation that day spoke for many primary voters, no doubt.

"I wanted to make sure my voice was heard," she said. 

Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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Mark Bennett has reported and analyzed news from the Wabash Valley and beyond since Larry Bird wore Sycamore blue. That role with the Tribune-Star has taken him from Rome to Alaska and many points in between, but Terre Haute suits him best.