By Erica Irish
INDIANAPOLIS—House lawmakers sat divided Wednesday when the majority party backed a bill to change absentee mail-in ballot deadlines, clearing its final hurdle before heading to the governor.
In a 65-31 vote led by House Republicans, the chamber approved changes made to House Bill 1311 in the Senate.
Reps. Thomas Saunders, R-Lewisville, and Philip GiaQuinta, D-Fort Wayne, discussing House Bill 1311. Photo by Andrew Longstreth, TheStateHouseFile.com
The main goal of HB 1311 is to move the deadline for absentee mail-in ballots from eight to 12 days before an election. After it passed the Senate in a 37-9 vote, lawmakers asked to also adjust the bill’s effective date to July 1, 2019, several months ahead of the original start date of Jan. 1, 2020, meaning the earlier deadline could affect municipal and mayoral elections in November.
Bill author Thomas Saunders, R-Lewisville, explained that he drafted the measure in response to complaints from county clerks that arose after the 2018 general election, namely that their offices needed more time to receive and process absentee ballots before election day. Without additional time, Saunders and the clerks have said, ballots might be lost in the process or be received too late.
“Does this solve the problem? I don’t know,” Saunders said. “But the clerks have asked for this.”
Earlier in the session, Bartholomew County Clerk Jay Phelps spoke to this point when he testified on behalf of the Indiana Clerks Association at the time the bill was introduced in the House Elections and Apportionment Committee.
“A lot of times, even with the mail working properly, those votes still don’t get in on time,” Phelps said. “You can ask any clerk from any political party. This is simply a problem we’re having.”
Democrats, however, stood firm on their argument that the bill could hinder voters.
“I don’t understand how we are eliminating days for people to vote,” said Rep. Chuck Moseley, D-Portage. “We want people to exercise their right to vote, and we want to make it as easy as we can for them to vote.”
In response, Rep. Matt Lehman, R-Berne, listed off several voting methods that would be unaffected by the bill, should it become law, including traditional in-person voting and early voting.
“This is a step backward for us. This is not going to reflect well on our state,” Rep. Terri Austin, D-Anderson, argued back.
This isn’t the only policy to target absentee ballots. When lawmakers in the Senate were reviewing HB 1311, Sen. J.D. Ford, D-Indianapolis, offered an amendment to require tracking devices to be fixed on individual absentee ballots. Ford said this could empower the public and allow voters to verify where their ballot is and, more important, to ensure when their vote is counted.
The chamber defeated Ford’s amendment, with lawmakers like Sen. Mike Young, R-Indianapolis, arguing the plan could overwhelm the U.S. Postal Service and cost the state additional money it can’t afford.
“I think that’s going to be a pretty hefty cost at this point and we don’t have a way to pay for it,” Young said.
In the House, Rep. Cherrish Pryor, D-Indianapolis, presented a near identical amendment, but it failed, alongside a slew of changes presented by her Democratic colleagues that proposed everything from restoring the original deadline to extending voting hours.
Erica Irish is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.