In the South, in the 1960s, blacks who tried to vote were often thwarted – sometimes even beaten or killed. But over time that brand of overtly racist voter suppression was all but eliminated.
The problem in more recent years has been the huge number of people who just don't bother to participate. Instead of making it easier for people to exercise their right to vote, someone always seems to be coming up with ways to make it harder.
Last week, Common Cause of Indiana said a state law allowed county voting officials to invalidate “several hundred and possibly more than a thousand mail-in absentee ballots” in the last election by determining signatures on the ballots didn't match other examples on file. The organization's lawsuit, filed by Indianapolis attorney William Groth on behalf of four voters in St. Joseph County, said the law allows county officials to make those decisions without attempting to notify those whose votes are being disallowed.
“Absentee ballot counters are given no training, no standards, and no regulations to follow when evaluating signatures,” the lawsuit reads. “Individual signatures may vary for a number of reasons – including age, disability, and limited-English proficiency – yet Indiana provides no training to elections administrators in handwriting analysis.”
The voters named in the lawsuit were unaware of the problem until Common Cause discovered their votes hadn't been counted. They included a 99-year-old woman who resides in a senior-living facility and a 69-year-old woman who told the South Bend Tribune her signature had deteriorated over the years because of Parkinson's disease.
“My bank has never questioned it,” Mary Frederick told the Tribune. “You'd think if anyone was going to question my signature, they would.”
Common Cause found 39 voters who had been disqualified for signature problems in St. Joseph County and 45 in Hamilton County. Allen County was not part of the organization's six-county sampling before the lawsuit was filed, though Groth plans to use the state's open-records laws to survey every county as the lawsuit proceeds.
State law doesn't preclude officials from trying to reach absentee voters before they disqualify them.
Contacted by email, Beth Dlug, Allen County's director of elections, said her staff reviews all signatures on absentee applications and ballots against records already on file. “If we have any questions about the validity of the signature,” she wrote, “we call the voter and ask them about the differences and ask them to verify it is their signature. If we are unable to get in touch with the voter or still have questions about the validity, we have our three-member Election Board review the signatures to make a final decision.
“We very rarely make a disqualification due to a voter's signature on the ballot envelope,” Dlug added.
But if Allen County goes beyond what the law requires, that's not an argument for a law that fails to set standards. One of Common Cause's points is that enforcement of the rule appears to vary widely among counties.
Similar laws in other states have been struck down or changed. In Illinois, Groth told the Indianapolis Star, a lawsuit forced the state to require notice to absentee voters whose signatures are disputed.
Indiana's rule seems vulnerable to a constitutional challenge. Why not change the law before the courts force a change?