6, under Indiana law support by a majority is insufficient; unanimous agreement by the election board is required. Since legislation passed in 2001, every county requires a unanimous vote of the three-member board to expand early voting. County ...
Absentee voting in Hamilton County grew in 2016 with the addition of early polling places. Why was Marion County limited to just one? Stephen J. Beard / IndyStar
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Although two bills addressing the scarcity of early-voting sites in Marion County died this legislative session, voting-rights activists may have one last chance for expanded elections access before the midterms.
A single federal judge.
In the latest development in an ongoing lawsuit over early-voting access in the state's largest county, plaintiffs have asked U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker to order the Marion County Election Board to add additional voting sites before the May 8 primaries.
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Last May Common Cause Indiana and the Indianapolis chapter of the NAACP filed suit in the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Indiana against the Marion County Election Board, its three members and Indiana Secretary of State Connie Lawson.
The lawsuit alleges that the scarcity of early-voting locations in Marion County discriminates against African-American voters and violates the Constitution.
The plaintiffs on Jan. 31 requested a preliminary injunction to force the election board to "establish no fewer than two (overall) satellite voting locations for early, in-person absentee voting for the 2018 primary and general elections."
Julia Vaughn, policy director for Common Cause Indiana, told IndyStar that "Marion County's voters have suffered long enough."
Marion County — with more than 900,000 residents and a large African-American population — has just one place to vote early, the City-County Building in Downtown Indianapolis. Parking at the building is limited and difficult to find.
Surrounding counties all have more than one location. For instance, Boone County has nine locations, Hendricks County has three and Johnson County has five, and all have exponentially lower populations than Marion County. They are also all Republican-dominated counties.
An IndyStar analysis conducted last year found that GOP officials expanded early-voting stations in Republican-dominated Hamilton County and decreased them in the state's biggest Democratic hotbed, Marion County.
Most telling, Hamilton County saw a 63 percent increase in absentee voting from 2008 to 2016 while Marion County saw a 26 percent decline.
Elections officials, including the now-vice chairman of the House Elections and Apportionment Committee, have admitted that additional early-voting sites increase voter turnout.
Lawson, Indiana's secretary of state, has said she believes there is no link between early-voting access and voter turnout. She was unavailable to comment on this story.
Can sites be added in time?
In response to the injunction, the Marion County Election Board submitted an outline of some of the logistical challenges associated with adding satellite locations before the primaries.
"The May election takes place fewer than 90 days from this submission," wrote the board's attorney, Anne K Ricchiuto.
"The Election Broad," she wrote, "respectfully requests that it be enjoined to establish no more than two satellite sites for the 2018 primary election."
Russel Hollis, the board's deputy director, told IndyStar that while it would be physically possible to add more early-voting sites before Nov. 6, under Indiana law support by a majority is insufficient; unanimous agreement by the election board is required.
Since legislation passed in 2001, every county requires a unanimous vote of the three-member board to expand early voting. County elections boards are made up of a Democrat, a Republican and the county clerk.
The last time Marion County had multiple early-voting sites was in October 2008, when two additional satellite voting locations opened. They were at North Central High School on East 86th Street and the Southport Community Center on Derbyshire Road.
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That year Barack Obama was elected president and was the first Democrat to carry Indiana since Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964.
Since 2010, the lone Republican member of the board has voted down every election board attempt to add additional early-voting sites.
Legislative effort stalls
Common Cause's request for an injunction comes after several attempts to compel the legislature to act died in the Statehouse.
Sen. Greg Taylor, D- Indianapolis, filed two bills that addressed early voting in Marion County.
Taylor's bills, which would have been effective July 2018 if passed into law, would repeal and replace rules governing the Marion County Election Board and make it easier to establish new early-voting sites. Neither bill got a hearing in the Senate Elections Committee, headed by Sen. Greg Walker, R-Columbus.
When asked about Common Cause's attempt to compel a federal judge to act, Taylor told IndyStar he is in full support.
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"I think anything we do to make it easier for people to vote is something that we can be in support of," he said. "I want to make sure it's easier for people to vote."
Vaughn says she is hopeful that Barker will rule in her organization's favor.
"We made a compelling argument both in terms of the Voting Rights Act and constitutional issues" she said.
"We'll get our fair day in court."
Call IndyStar reporter Fatima Hussein at (317) 444-6209. Follow her on Twitter: @fatimathefatima.
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