Monroe County clerk on 2020 general election: “I know seven polling sites are not going to cut it in November.”

The Nov. 3, 2020 general election will be likely be administered under the standard prevailing laws and rules in the state of Indiana.

cropped Hal Turner Screen Shot 2020-07-03 at 3.30.01 PM 1
Chair of Monroe County’s three-member election board, Hal Turner at the July 2, 2020 meeting, which was conducted on the Zoom video-conferencing platform.

That’s what Monroe County election board members are assuming, based on discussion at their regular meeting on Thursday.

That would mean no-excuse absentee balloting, which was enacted just for this year’s primary election by Indiana’s state election commission, won’t be in place for the general election.

So Monroe County board members are planning to use all 34 election day polling sites in November, not just the seven that were used for the June 2 primary.

The four-member bi-partisan state commission decided in late March to allow voters to request an absentee ballot to vote by mail for any reason.

Allowing no-excuse absentee voting was an effort to reduce the number of people voting in person at the polls on election day, to help prevent the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic virus.

Finding election workers willing to work the polls was a challenge—because many are older people who are among the most vulnerable to COVID-19. So one strategy used by the Monroe County election board, to reduce the number of workers needed on election day, was to reduce the number of polling sites.

By encouraging absentee voting, Monroe County was able to reduce the number of election day polling locations from the usual 34 to just seven. In Monroe County, two-thirds of the roughly 27,000 June 2 primary voters cast a ballot by mail.

Adoption of no-excuse absentee voting generally, not just in the time of a pandemic, is a part of the Indiana Democratic Party’s platform.

The state is bracing for possible resurgence of COVID-19 cases associated with the recent removal of most restrictions on the operation of businesses, and the re-opening of K-12 schools and higher educational institutions in the fall.

But at Thursday’s meeting, election board member Carolyn VandeWiele said that the governor, secretary of state and two Republican members of the four-member state election commission are not currently inclined to make universal absentee voting available to Hoosier voters. VandeWiele is the Democratic Party’s representative on the election board. Hal Turner is her Republican party counterpart.

Monroe County’s clerk, Democrat Nicole Browne, deferred to the state’s party chairs on the question of how the general elections will be handled. County clerks had been asked not to step on anything the secretary of state’s office might want to announce about the general election, Browne said.

“I think the fairest thing that I can say, until we are authorized to go further, or [Secretary of State Connie Lawson] makes her own press release is… we’ve got to plan for a full-out election,” Browne said. She added, “And I know seven polling sites are not going to cut it.”

One reason for Browne’s belief that Monroe County will need to use more of its 34 polling sites: The Nov. 3 general election numbers will probably be at least twice as big as those for the June 2 primary.

About 60,000 Monroe County voters cast ballots in the 2016 election. Of those, about 3,800 voted absentee. The in-person voters that year were roughly evenly split between those who voted early in the four weeks leading up to election day (about 26,500), and those who voted on election day (28,000).

If the state election commission doesn’t act to make no-excuse absentee voting possible for the general election, it’s not likely the number of absentee voters could be increased much over the 2016 totals.

Still, at Thursday’s meeting, election board member VandeWiele encouraged people who qualify for an absentee ballot to go ahead and apply for a ballot now, instead of waiting until the last minute. That will help the election staff manage their allocation of labor more efficiently, she said.

Among the allowable reasons for voting absentee are: a reasonable expectation of being absent from the county on election day; being confined due to illness or injury; and being at least least 65 years old.

Based on this year’s primary numbers, if the state election commission were to make absentee voting available to everyone for the general election, the Monroe County election staff and board would have possibly around 35,000 ballots to process on election day. The envelopes containing a mailed-in absentee ballot can’t be opened before election day.

And one strategy Monroe County staff used for thousands of extra absentee ballots for the primary election this year will not be available for the fall, because it’s not consistent with state election law. This year, on election day, when it was apparent it would take more time to finish counting, election staff sent workers home at 10 p.m. and brought them back the following morning to start fresh.

At Thursday’s meeting, board chair Hal Turner said the board had received a lot of criticism for that. But Turner said, “I’m willing to take that beating, any time. I think we made the right decision for the right reasons, because when you push people into the middle of the night, you start to get errors.”

Turner also said it’s a strategy that they won’t be able to use in the fall, because it’s not consistent with a part of state election law that they did not know about earlier. The law says, “To minimize delay, the absentee ballot counters shall continue the count without interruption until all absentee ballots for the precinct are canvassed.”

How many voters could theoretically cast ballots at Election Central during the 28 days of early voting, given the possibility that COVID-19 physical distancing requirements would still need to be in place?

At an election board meeting in late April, Bob White of B&L IT Services, who manages the county’s voting equipment, ball-parked the maximum throughput of the newly renovated space at Election Central, with physical distancing requirements in place, to be around 1,000 voters a day.

The 34 election day polling sites could be getting some additional scrutiny for compliance with the Americans with Disability Act (ADA) requirements. Disability activist Randy Paul, worked with the election board on compliance issues with the seven primary polling locations, which included one that had never used before (City Church for All Nations).

For the primary elections, the seven polling sites got good marks from Paul. Cones with disability placards were set up to mark off parking spaces closest to whichever entrance that was being used for polling. And temporary ramps were installed in some locations, like a low curb at Grandview Elementary School.

But Paul has expressed some skepticism about the review of polling sites for the November general election. Paul has filed as a write-in Green Party candidate for the District 2 county commissioner seat currently held by Democrat Julie Thomas.

At Thursday’s meeting election board chair Hal Turner said he’d been in contact with representatives from Stone Belt about helping the election board review polling sites for ADA compliance. Stone Belt is a nonprofit that provides resources and supports for people with disabilities. Turner serves on the board of directors for Stone Belt.

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