Common Cause Indiana calls for lawmakers to reform election laws

By James Polston
TheStatehouseFile.com

INDIANAPOLIS—With issues seen around the state on Election Day from polls that opened late to ballots that took days to count, lawmakers are being urged to seek ways to improve the state’s election laws when they convene in January.

“I think the experience in Indiana in those counties that had problems on Election Day provide a really good roadmap for Indiana,” said Julia Vaughn, policy director of Common Cause Indiana, a nonpartisan organization that works to promote open, ethical and accountable government.

Julia Vaughn, policy director at Common Cause Indiana, is calling for election reforms. Photo by Adrianna Pitrelli, TheStatehouseFile.com

“Our policy makers (need) to figure out how to make voting more convenient, more accessible and ensure that nobody is disenfranchised because somebody made a mistake or machines fail or servers can’t connect to the poll book,” Vaughn said. “We shouldn’t be experiencing these problems in 2018.”

The group’s top priority, Vaughn said, is seeking to reform how legislative districts are drawn to take them out of the hands of partisan politicians. They’re wasting no time getting lawmakers’ attention, holding a rally on Tuesday — the legislature’s annual Organization Day meeting — to push for a citizens’ redistricting commission.

“Too many legislators think their constituents don’t care about gerrymandering,” Vaughn said. “(The public) can help us prove them wrong.”

Democrats blame gerrymandered districts — those drawn specifically to benefit a political party or to cram the opposing party into as few districts as possible — for the fact that they will remain powerless in this year’s legislature. Republicans won supermajorities again in both the Senate and House in the November election, meaning that they can conduct legislative business even if no Democrats are on the floor.

Without the votes to make election changes, all they can do is talk.

John Zody, chairman of the Indiana Democratic Party, said Democrats “have done a good job of talking about the need to change laws, expanded voting hours, looking at how the administration of elections is run. So, I think several (Democrat lawmakers) will be taking a hard look at that and see what issues popped up again.”

Although there were issues reported around the state with election administration and poll machines not working, Russell Hollis, deputy director of the Marion County clerk’s office, said everything ran smoothly in that county on Election Day. The only issue was when a few people did not show up to work the polls.

“Not every poll worker showed up, we had quite a few no-shows,” Hollis said. “But we still had enough people there to let voters vote.”

Hollis said voter turnout in Marion County was more than double the amount from the 2016 general election, coming in at around 48 percent in 2018.

Hollis acknowledged, though, that even though some new voting machines were purchased in 2016, the overall system needs updating as the county still uses paper binders that list voter registrations by precinct to check whether a person is eligible to vote.

“I think obtaining more funding perhaps from the federal government and using that funding for new machines, new equipment, I think that would be a big help at the county level,” he said.

Vaughn said Common Cause Indiana also is calling for changes in election administration.

“A bigger pervasive problem with the administration of elections here in Indiana is that we allow partisans to do it,” Vaughn said. “Partisans are in charge those people who are most interested in the outcome are the folks who we put in charge of the very basic elements of how to run an election.”

Vaughn said counties should to hand over election administration to firms and individuals who specialize in administration of complicated issues and lawmakers should look at creating a law to extend polling hours if there is an issue.

“We should have a standardized practice that’s in place if something happens, if it’s human error, if its mechanical problem, whatever, if polling places are forced to shut down, if they cannot let voters vote, then there has to be some uniform process in place in terms of extending the polling place hours,” Vaughn said.

Vaughn also said the state should look at creating better training for poll workers because a majority of them are run by volunteers, not all are required training and the quality of training varies from county to county.

Also on Common Cause agenda: Making it easier for Hoosier to register and to vote early.

“We cut off voter registration 29 days before the election. That’s another way that Indiana election laws are more restrictive than a lot of other states,” she said.

Sen. Greg Walker, the Columbus Republican who is chairman of the Senate Elections Committee, introduced a bill in the last session calling for same-day voter registration did not hold a hearing on it.

“He didn’t even give it a hearing in his own committee,” Vaughn said. “So that’s one bill that we really need to be talking to legislators, encouraging them to get behind this idea and we’ll be communicating with our members and asking them to put pressure in their lawmakers.”

Walker did not respond to requests for comment.

James Polston is a reporter for TheStatehouseFile.com, a news website powered by Franklin College journalism students.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect a clarification. Julia Vaughn, public policy director of the good government advocacy group Common Cause Indiana, said counties, which run elections, should hand over election administration to firms and individuals who specialize in administration of complicated issues.

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