Allen County Commissioner Linda Bloom did the right thing on Friday when she cast the lone dissenting vote against transferring oversight of the independent Allen County Voter Registration to the Clerk of the Courts.
Commissioners Nelson Peters and Therese Brown made valid points that deserve further consideration when they suggested there were opportunities to make needed improvements in efficiency and that the stand- alone registration department was a last vestige of political patronage. But the department’s autonomy is also a small measure of bipartisan oversight in a county dominated by a single political party.
A state law enacted two years ago allows county officials to give the clerk’s office authority over voter registration. But it requires a unanimous vote.
There are 72 counties in Indiana where the county clerk is responsible for managing both voter registration and election administration. That system probably works just fine for smaller counties because independent departments may not have enough work year round to keep staff busy, especially in a non-election year. But it would likely create an overwhelming workload for the Allen County clerk’s office.
The plan was then to allow the Allen County Election Board to vote on transferring oversight of voter registration duties from the clerk’s office to the Election Board. The three-member election board consists of Republicans Zachary Klutz and Republican County Clerk Lisa Borgmann as well as Democratic member Tim Pape – who was appointed by Allen County Democratic Chairman John Court on Sunday to replace Andrew Boxberger.
The Election Board manages all other election-related duties, including picking voting locations, overseeing precinct workers and tabulating votes. The board provides oversight, and Beth Dlug serves as the executive director, providing the day-to-day management of the department.
Voter Registration currently is led by Barry Schust, appointed by Allen County Republican Chairman Steve Shine, and Maye Johnson, appointed by Court. The department is responsible for processing new registrations, maintaining the voter database and assigning voters to precincts.
The six Voter Registration employees – three of each major party – answer to the party chairs. The department sets its own work hours and is exempted from following the county rules for tracking worker hours and attendance.
We’ve had issues in the past, on both sides of the aisle, with things like ghost employment and attendance, Borgmann said.
She believes having one office – overseen by the Election Board – handling all election-related functions would reduce confusion for voters by giving them only one place to call with all questions.
Borgmann said about 85 percent of the new registration applications originate through the state now and not at the local level, making for less work for the department.
Peters and Brown contend the bipartisan Election Board ensures there will always be some bipartisan oversight. But the lone Democratic vote on the board is easily overruled. It happened in 2007 when Brown, then court clerk, voted along party lines in favor of mayoral candidate Matt Kelty on a campaign finance violation. Kelty later pleaded guilty to filing false campaign reports and lying to a grand jury.
Allen County has long been an example for the rest of the state of how to run elections proficiently. But at the national level, instances where the parties have worked the system to gain unfair advantage are rampant and instances of voter disenfranchisement are troubling.
Local leaders need to work to make changes that will improve the efficiency of the voter registration office – including following the policy on attendance and hours other county employees follow. But bipartisan oversight is needed.