It comes down to this: Is voting a right or a privilege?
For too long, Indiana has presumed the latter. We've looked for ways to make voting just a little harder for the people who have the most trouble voting.
Voter ID law, check. Polls closing at 6 p.m. on Election Day, making it impossible for some workers to get there, check. Enrollment in a flawed interstate voter-purge operation that enabled Indiana officials to cancel registrations of people who hadn't voted in several elections without even talking with the voters involved, check. A step back: A federal court ruled that process invalid and issued a preliminary injunction; last year, a federal appeals court upheld that ruling. The case is now back in district court.
Now, Gov. Eric Holcomb and Secretary of State Connie Lawson face one of the biggest voting-rights-related decisions in Indiana history: Whether to allow “no-excuse” vote by mail in this fall's election. Given the uncertainties of the pandemic at this point, failure to act could mean thousands of Hoosiers could face the choice of possibly being exposed to COVID-19 or being disenfranchised.
Opponents of Indiana's efforts to make voting harder often presume they are efforts by Republicans to eliminate minority, poor and elderly voters who might be more likely to vote Democratic.
“No-excuses” vote by mail isn't really a partisan issue. Both parties have instituted such systems in other states; both Democrats and Republicans have won in places it is used. Given Indiana's history on this subject, though, Holcomb and Lawson's failure to approve such a system could be read in the worst possible light.
The current dilemma stems from a good decision Holcomb and Lawson made as the pandemic descended this spring. They postponed the primary election and bypassed the rule requiring voters who wished to cast a ballot by mail to be 65 years old or meet one of several other specific criteria.
Voters could still vote in person early or on Election Day. State officials decided to keep in place an unfortunate requirement that mailed ballots must be received at the polls by noon on Election Day, an arbitrary deadline six hours before polls closed.
The results? A decent turnout by Indiana standards, more voting by mail than ever – and Hoosiers who mailed in their votes were able to avoid possible exposure to the coronavirus.
There were problems, noted Jane Henegar, executive director of ACLU of Indiana: “Ballots not reaching people till the last minute; people requesting ballots and not receiving them. Mailing was slowed down by the pandemic.”
That, she said, led to more cases where the ballots didn't reach polling places on time.
Hoosiers' voting experiences were in stark contrast to those in Wisconsin, where officials waited too long to address the issue and forced Milwaukee voters to stand in line for hours without effective plans for social distancing.
Indiana election officials had only a few weeks to prepare for the primary. There is far more time to prepare for the general election.
Or at least there has been. Every minute Lawson and Holcomb delay makes it less likely the state can be prepared for all contingencies in a year that has already amply demonstrated the need for that. Gearing up for a big increase in mail-in ballots may mean acquiring specialized supplies and equipment. Staff must be hired and trained. (Recall the difficulties our local Election Board encountered just trying to staff polling places in the primary election last month.)
Perhaps Holcomb and Lawson are counting on a miracle that will deliver Indiana from the clutches of the coronavirus just as election season opens. Perhaps they're listening to the president, who has loudly denounced vote by mail as a plot to steal the election.
Perhaps they fear “voter fraud” – the ever-present boogeyman used to justify restrictions on voting. But no one has ever demonstrated that voter fraud in any form is a significant problem.
“It just doesn't exist,” Henegar said last week. “It's anywhere between .0003% of (votes cast) or lower.” A 2014 Washington Post study of more than 1 billion votes cast found just 31 cases of “impersonation” of a voter
The recently deceased U.S. Rep. John Lewis had a philosophy Holcomb and Lawson might take to heart. Lewis carried a dent in his head he received when he decided not to back down from Alabama troopers trying to stop him and his colleagues from conducting a peaceful march for voting rights more than half a century ago. For the rest of his life, he embodied the principle of voting as a cornerstone of freedom.
“The right to vote is precious and almost sacred, and one of the most important blessings of our democracy,” Lewis once said. “We must be vigilant in protecting that blessing.”
It's fair to say no one knows what things will be like in early November. But the disruptive prospects of a continuing threat from COVID-19 could make a decision to allow no-excuse mail voting crucial.
Indiana is one of only nine states that still require an excuse beyond concern about coronavirus to vote by mail. Officials should stop dithering, endorse no-excuse voting and let planning for this daunting task get under way.
As Henegar says, “We don't have a voter-fraud problem; we have a voter-participation problem.”