By: Evan Fraughinger
It was late at night on November 4, 2008, and I was watching the election results from my house in Fort Wayne, Indiana. To everyone’s surprise, as Indiana’s results finalized, Barack Obama was declared the winner of the State. This was the first time that a Democratic presidential candidate won Indiana since Johnson’s victory in 1964 and only the second time since World War II. Voter turnout in Indiana’s two largest and most Democratic counties, Marion County and Lake County, largely explained President Obama’s narrow 28,000 vote victory in the traditionally red state. While many Hoosiers celebrated, according to new allegations in a lawsuit filed by Common Cause Indiana and the NAACP, several Republican officials and the Marion County Election Board began planning how to prevent another Democratic upset.
The IndyStar, originally broke the story about allegations of early voting restrictions in Marion County. While this Democratic stronghold experienced a sustained decrease in early voting locations, heavily Republican counties, like Hamilton County, were busy expanding their voting sites. For context, Marion County is the largest county in Indiana with a population of over 941,000 and Hamilton is the fourth largest county with a population of just over 316,000. To get a better understanding of the allegations of voting restrictions, it is important to go through the evolution of early voting locations from 2008 to 2016. In Indiana, County Election Boards are tasked with expanding early voting locations and require a unanimous vote among the County Clerk, one Republican member, and one Democratic member. This process was largely uncontroversial and Election Boards across the State would routinely expand voting sites. For example, one month before the 2008 election, the Marion County Election Board unanimously approved an additional two early voting locations, raising the total to three sites. 2008, however, was the last year that Marion County would have more than one early voting site. In 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016, the Republican member of the Board vetoed efforts to expand early voting in Marion County.
In contrast, from 2008 to 2016, Hamilton County added two additional stations creating one early voting site for every 76,000 registered voters while Marion County only has one early voting site for almost 700,000 registered voters. The result of this disproportionate allocation had an immediate effect on Indiana elections. From 2008 to 2016, Hamilton County saw a 63% increase in early voting and Marion County saw a 26% decrease in early voting despite both counties experiencing large amounts of growth. These facts are the basis for an ongoing lawsuit filed on May 2, 2017, by Common Cause Indiana and the NAACP.
The lawsuit relies on four primary arguments. The first argument claims a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause by arguing that the voters of Marion County were disproportionately burdened and denied equal access to their right to cast an early vote. The voters of Marion County are the only ones to experience such a restriction. The second argument states that because the Indiana Code does not provide any standards for election boards to determine whether to approve additional early voting sites, the voters’ Fourteenth Amendment Due Process Rights were violated. The third argument is based on a violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and argues that the early voting restrictions interact with Indiana’s long history of discrimination against African-Americans. Marion County has the largest population of African-Americans in Indiana and because African-Americans in the county are more likely than others to use early voting stations, these restrictions place a disproportionate burden on this group. Finally, the plaintiffs argue that there has been a violation of Indiana’s Constitution by pointing to Article 2, Section 1 which prohibits the “denial or abridgment of the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color.” The plaintiffs are seeking, among other things, an order enjoining the Defendants from continuing to obstruct or interfere with additional early voting locations.
In response to these allegations, local Republican officials have pointed to one central argument: additional voting sites have not been approved due to a lack of funding. Jim Merritt, Chairman of the Marion County Republican Party, stated, “I have never received any type of message that the individuals in charge of Marion County have any interest in spending the money to expand satellite locations.” Most other prominent Republican officials have declined to comment including the Senate President David Long, the House Speaker Brian Bosma, Governor Eric Holcomb, and Secretary of State Connie Lawson. I have also been unsuccessful in contacting local officials involved in this situation. In response to this funding argument, Indianapolis Mayor Joseph Hogsett stated that he has personally approved four fully funded attempts to expand early voting in Marion County but the Republican member on the Election Board blocked each attempt. When I asked Julia Vaughn, the Policy Director for Common Cause Indiana, she gave a similar response and stated that there was no evidence to back up this claim.
Both sides of the lawsuit are currently in informal settlement negotiations as of September 29, 2017, with no sign of an agreement being reached at this early stage. Each party appears to be deeply entrenched along partisan lines and settling into what could become a prolonged legal battle.