Barring a last-minute curveball from the federal courts, Indiana will be one of only four states without expanded vote-by-mail for the 2020 general election, amid an ongoing pandemic.
But advocates haven't given up on the fight – and they say they'll use everything that happened this year for a renewed push in the debate.
Gov. Eric Holcomb declared a public health emergency over COVID-19 on March 6. Two weeks later, before he issued an expansive “Stay-At-Home” order, Holcomb postponed the primary election from May to June. And the Indiana Election Commission expanded the state’s vote-by-mail system, allowing any eligible voter to cast their ballot that way for the primary. That was done in agreement with the Indiana Republican and Democratic Party leaders and Secretary of State Connie Lawson.
“All of these steps will be in concert to ensure that our election process will continue and that every eligible voter is given the opportunity to vote,” Lawson said.
People took advantage – more Hoosiers voted absentee than on Election Day.
A few months later, things have changed.
“We are going forward with a normal election process here in Indiana," Lawson said. "We will not be making changes like we did in the primary since the 'Stay-At-Home' order has been lifted.”
There are about a dozen reasons you can still legally vote by mail – including if you’re 65 or older, if you’re working or will be absent from your county the entire time polls are open on Election Day, or if you’re confined to your home.
But despite repeated calls, a vote at the Indiana Election Commission and a lawsuit, Republican leaders have refused to expand the system for the general election. They argue with so many people back to work and going out in public, there’s no need for more mail-in options. And they insist in-person voting is safe.
Holcomb also suggested another reason.
“We also deserve to have very timely election results," Holcomb said. "We call it Election Day, not election month.”
Indiana Democratic Party Chair John Zody doesn’t buy it – he said it’s purely political hypocrisy.
“I think there’s been a terrible dereliction of duty by the state administration and all those Republicans who claim to be patriots and advocates for the right to vote when they are basically suppressing it as we speak,” Zody said.
If there are political calculations behind Republicans’ decision not to expand vote-by-mail, University of Indianapolis political science professor Laura Wilson said those calculations don’t make much sense.
“Other states do have mail-in voting entirely. So, we’ve been able to look at those states and confirm, in fact, it does not benefit any party over another," Wilson said. "Both parties have their own demographics that would benefit, in their own way, from mail-in voting.”
And there are Hoosier Republicans fighting to expand it, including with the advocacy group Indiana Vote By Mail. It’s headed by Barbara Tully, who as part of the fight this year sued the state – so far unsuccessfully – to force it to expand mail-in voting this fall.
But Tully said the change she really wants isn’t temporary – it’s permanent.
“Indiana has very low voter turnout rates when you rank us among all 50 states and we need to do something to improve that," Tully said. "Vote-by-mail, as an option for voters to use if they choose to, brings more people into the electoral process.”
Tully said her organization will push the General Assembly to expand vote-by-mail when it reconvenes in 2021.
Wilson said the spotlight on mail-in voting this year could help that cause.
“Because I think a lot of people will say, ‘But really, why don’t we have it?’ … it brings to the forefront the challenges we have with the current system," Wilson said. "And individuals who may not have cared about it otherwise, may not have used it otherwise, it may not have applied to them otherwise – certainly everything about this year is different and that’s true for the election cycle as well. And it might get them thinking about it in a different way.”
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